Before 12-year-old Judah Cobble unwittingly became a poster boy for corporal punishment, he was a student at the Burke Elementary School in Peabody.
One day in April 1997, Judah, then 9, asked his teacher not to send a disciplinary note home about his school behavior because he feared a spanking by his father, a Christian minister who uses a belt on the boy's behind. The teacher did what the law requires teachers to do: Report the possibility of child abuse to the Department of Social Services.
In this state, teachers, along with many other professionals who have frequent contact with children, are mandated by state law to report cases of possible child abuse and neglect to child welfare authorities. The law was created so that any nurse, physician, counselor, or teacher who might be reluctant to get involved in the messiness of other people's domestic lives would have no excuse not to.
Ministers are also mandated reporters. But in this case Judah's father became the one being investigated by DSS for suspected child abuse, not the one reporting it. By his own admission, the Rev. Donald R. Cobble Jr. uses the soft end of a belt on his son's clothed buttocks to discipline Judah, who has attention deficit disorder, was born with a congenital disease and wears leg braces and a back brace. He also reads the Bible with his son after striking him. The minister maintained that he was within his parental rights to do so. Furthermore, he claimed that God approves of corporal punishment and he was within his religious rights, as well.
For all intents and purposes, DSS did what it is required to do. A social worker investigated the case, talked to the principals involved and found that there was reason to believe that Judah was at ''risk of substantial injury.''
By DSS guidelines, caseworkers investigating possible child abuse are asked to assess ''substantial risk of injury'' defined as ''an action taken or a situation which, left unchanged, might lead to physical or emotional injury to a child.'' Examples the department gives of substantial risk of injury include choking, smothering, pulling out a child's hair, shoving or throwing a child onto the floor or against a wall, or forcefully shaking a child. The guidelines also include ''a chronic pattern of repeatedly striking a child.''
In this case, DSS found that the minister's action met the standard of ''substantial risk of injury.'' The state's highest court disagreed, saying that spanking with a belt in this case did not constitute child abuse. (The court sidestepped in its decision the issue of whether the minister had a constitutional right to discipline his child according to his religious beliefs.)
The decision of the Supreme Judicial Court has sent a chill down the backs of DSS workers across the state, beginning with the office in Salem that investigated the case. Jeffrey Locke, the DSS commissioner and former prosecutor, said he still believes DSS acted appropriately and justifiably.
''I'm a lawyer by trade and I have very high respect for the courts. The court has spoken. I am disappointed that the court didn't speak more clearly with regard to the limitation on a parent's right to discipline because, unfortunately, the public only reads the headlines often and some people might read this as a green light on abuse, which it is not,'' said Locke, who was a prosecutor in both Norfolk and Middlesex counties.
Other child development specialists said they don't believe the court sufficiently understood, considered, or appreciated the emotional consequences of such discipline. Broken bones, cigarette burns, and skull fractures are easy to quantify. But child welfare workers are responsible for doing more than counting burn marks. They must also assess emotional scars left behind by parental action (or in the case of neglect, inaction) and that sort of harm is much harder to measure.
Part of the problem for DSS is the same that it has always been: How to assess harm that is not as visible as bruises, how to measure injury that is hidden in the psyche, how to quantify fear and anxiety, what standard to use? Most child development specialists agree the standard should be thus: Corporal punishment of any kind is always a harmful practice that jeopardizes a child's basic trust in the world, places children in jeopardy, damages their fragile psyches and makes them angry, resentful and even more prone to violence. Therefore, it is never right, fair, or justifiable to hit a child.
Perhaps then, it is time for the state law to be as equally and unequivocally clear that child abuse is assault and battery. Perhaps it is time to treat child abuse criminally, to consider it a criminal offense to beat, spank, or strike a child. Perhaps it is time for police, rather than child welfare workers, to investigate parents suspected of using corporal punishment.
If a day-care worker or baby sitter raised a hand against a child, it would be considered egregious. Parents should not be given the prerogative to batter, either. There should be no latitude. Physical discipline should neither be tolerated nor excused under any circumstances. Perhaps then, people would not feel at liberty to hurt their children with such a free hand.
Anne Driscoll is a regular contributor to North Weekly. Her e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story ran on page 13 of the Boston Globe's North Weekly on 11/28/99. © Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.