Let's outlaw any hitting of children
When I read the welcome news that a major task force will probe the causes of child abuse deaths in Ontario, I reached for the phone and called Corinne Robertshaw.
By Michele Landsberg, Toronto Star, September 22, 1996
It has been 15 years since Robertshaw, then a lawyer working in the federal civil service, did her horrific and detailed report on child abuse deaths.

She discovered that up to 200 Canadian children every year were being beaten, kicked, burned and battered to death - while doctors, children's aid workers and coroners looked the other way, listing the deaths as ``accidental.''

Had the federal government acted on her recommendations - instead, it desperately tried to bury the report - how many tormented infants might have been saved in the decade and a half since then?

Robertshaw now has a trenchant bit of advice for the task force.

What she pointed to was like the murder weapon that lies in full view in detective stories - and is maddeningly overlooked just because it's so obvious and innocent-looking.

It's Section 43 of the Canadian Criminal Code - the law that allows teachers, parents and other adults in authority to use ``reasonable force'' for the ``correction'' of a child.

It has been successfully used as a legal defence by parents who bruised, hurt and wounded their children with straps, sticks, belts and fists.

I confess that I balked when Robertshaw insisted, in her calm, factual manner, that Section 43 was ``a key factor'' in the torment and murder of children. But it turns out that she can back up her argument with powerful research.

Repeal Section 43 and hitting a child becomes an assault to be judged like any other.

Children's aid workers could step in earlier to potentially abusive situations. The federal government - and hundreds of community organizations - could credibly launch a massive education campaign on how to raise children without violence.

Children would quickly learn that no one has a right to hurt them.

And our whole culture would undergo a sea-change. We would live in a climate in which hitting children is no longer acceptable.

Here's one incisive statistic that should zing straight to the hearts of those who so vociferously insist on their right to hit their kids: Parents who approve of physical punishment have a child abuse rate four times higher than those who disapprove.

``The majority of child abuse cases are `disciplinary incidents' in which the parents admit that they just lost it and went too far,'' said psychologist Dr. Joan Durrant, professor of family studies at the University of Manitoba, who carried out a recent eye-opening study for the federal government.

She particularly remembered the case of a father who, to force his daughter to eat dinner faster, put a knife on the table - and ended up stabbing her with it.

Does hitting a child really work as discipline?

Emphatically not. Quite the opposite.

Among findings cited by Dr. Durrant: there's a clear association between a mother's use of corporal punishment and severe tantrums among pre-schoolers.

There are also strong links between frequent spankings and all forms of children's and teens' theft, aggression, assault and violent behavior against siblings, schoolmates and parents.

One large British study showed that the best predictors of having a criminal record by age 20 were having been hit at least once a week at age 11 and having a mother who strongly believed in corporal punishment.

In fact, even though most Canadian parents admit to swatting their children at least once, almost all say they think physical punishment is ineffective - and they're ashamed of having used it.

When more than a quarter of a million Canadian children experience some form of abuse each year - and when physical punishment is responsible for the majority of child abuse cases - how can the task force not demand the repeal of Section 43, which condones violence against the most defenceless?

Of course, social conservatives will fall back on their tired old excuse for doing nothing: ``You can't change human nature.'' Maybe not, but the point of law is to change human behavior.

We did it with smoking, with drunk driving, with seat belts.

The most dramatic example of the power of law to shape public values is in Sweden, where corporal punishment was banned in 1979.

The Swedish rate of approval of corporal punishment has since tumbled from 53 per cent to 11 per cent - and Sweden has one of the lowest child abuse death rates in the world.

Violence toward children is, sadly, a learned behavior.

Those who have been beaten grow up believing the brutality was justified - and that they have the right to inflict the same pain on their own flesh and blood.

Of course, the causes of child abuse are many and complex. ``But this is one specific, obvious piece that we keep missing. If we don't hit them, we can't physically harm them,'' said Dr. Durrant.

Every member of the task force has a grave duty to examine his or her own past experience and confront the personal legacy of any corporal punishment.

In light of the evidence, it's no longer tolerable for responsible adults to say, ``It didn't hurt me any.'' It did. It does.

here's every reason to believe that unless we change our disgustingly abusive law, we can't even begin to stop the battering, the broken bones - and the murder.

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