Boston Globe , April 29, 1999

Is spanking abuse? SJC to take up case
By John Ellement, Globe Staff

In the heart and mind of Woburn pastor Donald R. Cobble Jr., he has a God-given and biblically sanctioned right to punish his young son by spanking him with a leather belt.

But the state agency charged with protecting children disagrees, likening Cobble's tough-love discipline to child abuse.

Now, the state's highest court will step in as arbiter, weighing the rights of parents to raise their children as their religious beliefs dictate against the right of the state to step in when strictness crosses over to abuse.

The state Supreme Judicial Court has short-circuited the appellate process, bypassing the state Appeals Court to take Cobble's appeal for itself, which often happens in cases that raise significant legal and policy issues. It will hear the case in the fall.

At issue is Cobble's belief that corporal punishment is an act of love sanctioned by the Bible, a belief not shared by the Superior Court judge who agreed with the state Department of Social Services last year that Cobble's method of discipline could veer into child abuse.

Yesterday, Cobble's attorney, Chester Darling, said Cobble believes that the DSS has tampered with his right to raise his child as he sees fit and violated his constitutional right to practice religion without interference from government.

''Who the hell are they to tell parents how to discipline their children?'' Darling asked. ''It's sad that we have these social workers coming into a home and telling people how they should raise their kids and objecting to the religious features of that family's expression.

''The essence of this case is that a lack of discipline is a form of child abuse,'' said Darling, who successfully sued on behalf of a veterans group to keep a contingent of gay marchers out of the St. Patrick's Day parade in South Boston.

He has also organized a nonprofit group to argue conservative causes in court and on Beacon Hill.

''Take a look at Colorado and see what happens if there are no rules and they aren't enforced by the parent,'' Darling added.

But Jeffrey A. Locke, acting commissioner of the DSS, said the Cobble case should be viewed as the one that might finally, clearly delineate the line between abuse and physical punishment - not as an intrusion into the privacy of child-rearing or deeply held religious beliefs.

Locke noted that the SJC, in a case decided in the 1980s, ruled that a parent's religious beliefs must give way when a child's physical well-being is threatened.

In that case, the SJC upheld the manslaughter conviction of Christian Scientists whose son died when they did not get traditional medical treatment for the child.

Cobble is an associate pastor at the Christian Teaching and Worship Center in Woburn. In 1997, he and his ex-wife, Lisa, clashed with the DSS.

At the time, their son Judah was attending a special needs program in Peabody because he has attention deficit disorder. As part of the school's education plan for Judah, a teacher sends a report detailing the child's behavior to his parents every night. The teacher asked for strong support from parents to help quell negative behaviors in the classroom, Darling said.

Cobble's approach was to read to Judah from the Bible while spanking him on the buttocks with the soft end of a belt. Judah was always clothed and was punished only this way when he disrupted the class or had physical contact with classmates or teachers, Darling said. He was not disciplined for difficulties in academic performance.

Judah told a teacher he feared his father and the spankings, triggering a DSS investigation. A social worker concluded that Cobble had abused Judah in the past and could do so in the future.

Further appeals inside DSS reached the same conclusion, as did Suffolk Superior Court Judge John Cratsley.

''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 injury,'' Cratsley ruled in December.

DSS did not remove the child from the home, and Cobble was never charged with child abuse.

The agency is no longer involved with the Cobble family. Judah reported getting red marks on his buttocks from the spankings, but two doctors who regularly treated him told DSS they had never seen signs of abuse.

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