Boston Herald, December 5, 1998

Judge: Pastor may not spank his son: Minister vows to fight ruling sparked by DSS
By Andrea Estes

A Woburn minister does not have the right to spank his son, a judge ruled, saying the punishment could constitute child abuse.

"I'm going to fight this thing and I'm going to win," said an angry Rev. Donald Cobble, associate pastor of the Christian Teaching and Worship Center, who heeds the Bible's warning: "Spare the rod, spoil the child."

Cobble, who admits spanking his 11-year-old son Judah regularly with a belt, said he'll have to borrow money to appeal the decision, which affirmed abuse charges filed against him by the Department of Social Services.

"Who are they to decide what's best for me and my family? Of the three social workers who came and spoke to me, none were married and none had kids," said Cobble. "What I have done is legal and it's Biblical. Why are they able to declare me a child abuser?"

Cobble, who administers one or two spanks with the leather part of a belt when his son acts up, was turned in to authorities in March 1997 after his son mentioned the family ritual inadvertently to a teacher, who filed a 51a -- an abuse and neglect report.

Cobble pulled his child from the school and is teaching him at home. He also went to court.

But this week Suffolk County Superior Court Judge John Cratsley sided with DSS, ruling the corporal punishment puts Jonah at risk, a factor which outweighs Cobble's right to practice his faith.

"Given the continued nature of the spanking, the vulnerability of the child, and the Cobbles' admission of both spanking and believing in spanking as a form of discipline, there is a real risk that this practice will lead to serious physical injury as defined by (DSS regulations)," ruled Cratsley.

Although parents have "freedom of religious expression and practice which enters into their liberty to manage the familial relationship," he wrote, quoting a recent Supreme Judicial Court decision, "those liberties may be restricted where a child has been harmed by exposure to the parents' religious beliefs.

"Since the investigation revealed that Cobble's religious beliefs as implemented in physical discipline could potentially harm Judah, this determination is enough to warrant state intervention for the protection of Judah," Cratsley wrote.

Robert Sherman, Cobble's lawyer, said: "The decision is very bizarre. I would have expected the Superior Court not just simply to rubberstamp the findings of the department. But I think this decision will never withstand scrutiny by a higher court -- you cannot label somebody an abuser based on what they may do in the future. You're judged by your current conduct -- was it abusive. The answer is no," he said.

DSS officials, who had offered to drop the charges against Cobble if he would agree to stop the spankings, said the agency did what it is empowered to.

"The judge felt we were within the law to support a child abuse and neglect report," said DSS spokeswoman Lorraine Carli.

"Corporal punishment isn't against the law in Massachusetts," she said. "But DSS has to make judgment calls on whether or not punishment inflicted by a parent crosses the line from discipline to abuse. Usually that judgment comes when there's use of an instrument or marks are left on the child.

"These are very tough calls. It's much easier when you have a very clear-cut abuse or neglect case," she said.

Critics say DSS should stay out of parents' business, unless a child is in serious trouble.

"This is a disgrace," said Rep. Marie Parente (D-Milford), who chairs the Legislature's Committee on Foster Care.

"Very oftentimes abuse is in the mind of the beholder, who happens to be the DSS investigator," she said. "The problem is the investigators aren't always trained and they just get carried away. They need to know the culture of the family and the religion. The message here is that parents better get the rules and regs of DSS or beware."

But child welfare advocates say it's better to err on the side of the kids.

"We wouldn't be having this discussion if it was about someone hitting a dog and we saw it," said Joyce Strom, executive director of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

"We'd call the MSPCA, they'd move in, file charges and take the dog away. We all feel like we must protect animals in this country. But we don't want to interfere with how someone treats children," she said.

"The bottom line is they're all our children and you err on the side of kids because they can't defend themselves," she said.

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