Tribune-Review, August 6, 1998

Corporal punishment becoming a questionable offense
By Meredith Raine

With a word not fit for publication, James DePasquale described as nonsensical the actions of police whom he said are bulldogging parents for punishing their children.

The Pittsburgh attorney's argument was punctuated with less severe adjectives like "asinine" and "ridiculous" as he recalled cases involving clients accused of battering their youngsters.

These were not legitimate cases with evidence to substantiate claims of child abuse, DePasquale said Wednesday. These were family matters of corporal punishment.

Just last week, DePasquale said, he defended a Monroeville man accused of assaulting his 12-year-old granddaughter.

The girl was supposed to be at a certain place at a certain time for the grandfather to pick her up at the Monroeville Mall. She never showed.

In a panic, he called the police and reported her missing. When he finally found the pre-teen, she was talking to six older boys at the mall.

"He ran up to her from behind and grabbed the book bag that was strapped to her back," DePasquale said. "He called her a little brat and pushed her forward. A security guard intervened and said he was abusing the girl."

The child suffered no pain - no injury - yet the grandfather was charged with simple assault and reckless endangerment, DePasquale said. A district justice dismissed the charges.

DePasquale said his client was simply trying to discipline an unruly child. As the guardian of his granddaughter, he had the right to resort to corporal punishment. The police, however, said he did not.

DePasquale said the case, like at least four others he has defended in recent years, illustrates an ever-fraying line between physical discipline and child abuse.

And it's a warning to other parents who may swat their children on the behind in an effort to correct their behavior, DePasquale said.

On Tuesday, the manager of Ohio Township was found guilty of harassment and disorderly conduct for slapping his 8-year-old daughter at a restaurant.

John Sullivan, 40, had been charged with simple assault and reckless endangerment, but District Justice James E. Russo dismissed those charges after deciding there wasn't enough evidence to support them.

"John never should have been subject to the criminal process," his attorney, Michael Witherel, said. "He's a good father. He basically was fined for punishing his child in a manner that couldn't have happened the way it was testified to."

Two witnesses said they saw Sullivan push his 8-year-old daughter to the floor on Father's Day at the Eat 'n Park restaurant in Edgeworth. Theresa Brandis, of Sewickley, who was at the restaurant, testified on Tuesday that Sullivan then whisked his daughter out into the parking lot and hit her with his open hand at least three times.

Brandis reported the alleged abuse to police. Later that afternoon, a caseworker for the Allegheny County Department of Children, Youth and Families made a surprise visit to the Sullivan residence.

On the advice of counsel, Sullivan took his daughter to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, Oakland, for a head-to-toe examination. Neither the caseworker or doctors turned up evidence of abuse, Witherel said, but Sullivan was charged anyway.

"It doesn't matter if there is evidence or not. The police can file charges against you when no crime was committed. That was proven with this case," Witherel said.

"Do parents have to be worried about this? You're darn right you have to be worried. What are you supposed to do? Stand up and say, `Excuse me. Will anyone mind if I spank my child, or is this going to offend someone?' Offending someone could land you in jail."

Witherel and DePasquale both said they are not trying to dissuade people from reporting what they believe to be child abuse, but if there is no evidence to back up those claims, the investigation should end there.

"If it is corporal punishment, then it's nobody's business but the parents' and the child's," DePasquale said. "I don't think it takes a genius to determine which are legitimate cases of child abuse and which ones are not."

Marc Cherna, director of the county Department of Human Services, said it is "very seldom" that parents are criminally charged when there is no evidence that they abused a child.

"When it does happen, it hits the media, so it seems like a widespread problem," Cherna said. "By law, we have to check things out when we receive a complaint. We can't ignore it, but if we don't find anything, it's usually (over and) done."

Alice Mahler of the Pittsburgh-based Parent & Child Guidance Center said parents who physically discipline their children may not have ill intentions, but in a fit of uncontrolled anger, a slap or a shove can escalate to abuse.

"With corporal punishment, you get into dangerous territory because unfortunately, children can get hurt, and that's the last thing you want," Mahler said.

Mahler, along with Kathleen Moore of the Parental Stress Center on the city's South Side, recommended that parents use alternative disciplinary measures.

Spell out the guidelines for good behavior as well as the consequences for breaking the rules. If children misbehave, take away privileges. Remove them from the public place where they are throwing the tantrum. But do it gently.

"There is always a better alternative," Moore said. "If parents are proactive, they will be less likely to be in a situation to use physical discipline. And they will be less likely to cross that line and abuse their child."

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