The Flint Journal, January 28, 2001

(Flint, Michigan) Abuse or not: Swats on trial
By Jerry Ernst, Journal Staff Writer

Kristopher "Kit" Lab spanked his girlfriend's 4 1/2-year-old daughter nearly three months ago. Now those six swats might become a cause celebre.

The 26-year-old faces trial over what the county prosecutor calls "excessive force" and Lab's lawyer calls an attempt to criminalize spanking.

The state Family Independence Agency has ordered Lab to stay away from the girl, her twin and a 2-year-old sister.

Shiawassee County, prompted by the FIA, has charged Lab with fourth-degree child abuse. A District Court trial might begin in two weeks. If found guilty, Lab could spend up to a year in jail.

Lab's defense attorney and a Warren-based activist group say the state wants to make Lab's case a test for turning a simple spanking into a misdemeanor. The group, Parents for Children, hopes to use the trial as a platform for upholding the right to spank children.

Lab and his girlfriend, Krissi Sue McOwen, said their lives are in turmoil. Lab, now living near Owosso with his parents, said he has lost 25 pounds and misses the children.

"My biggest fear ... would be not being able to come home," he said. "This is our home. ... This is our life."

Ironically, prosecutors said McOwen alerted police about the case, calling to report suspected child abuse after her boyfriend acknowledged spanking the girl. McOwen says a friend of hers called police without her OK.

In early November, Lab moved out of the house he and McOwen had shared for about seven months. He said he has not had contact with the children, who came out of an 8-year relationship between Paul and Krissi McOwen, including 1 1/2 years of marriage.

The verdict in Lab's case will turn on such questions as whether a nonparent can spank a child and if a reddened rump suggests excessive force, said Deana M. Finnegan, Shiawassee County chief assistant prosecutor.

"When you bruise the child to the point that the bruises last several days, ... that's excessive force," she said. "I've spanked both of my children but I've never left a mark when I've done it.

"Mr. Lab went too far. And he isn't the father."

Fourth-degree child abuse entails physical damage through the use of excessive force.

Lab, an assembly technician for an Owosso manufacturer of pollution control equipment, said he spanked the girl on two occasions, hitting her three times each, in early November when she refused to stop jumping on her identical twin. The spankings occurred 20-30 minutes apart in the couple's south Owosso home, he said.

Police were told McOwen had left for 45 minutes to visit her 6-year-old son, who lives with his father. The couple recently divorced.

Krissi McOwen learned about the spanking the next morning when she saw her daughter's reddened rear.

After police were notified, McOwen took her daughter to Owosso's hospital. Police notified the Shiawassee County FIA of a suspected incident of child abuse.

The FIA insisted - under threat of removing the children from the home - that Lab have no contact with the girls, and the agency began spelling out actions McOwen and her fiance should take, such as enrolling in a parenting course. The agency eventually referred the matter to the prosecutor's office, which filed charges.

McOwen said she and Lab had previously spanked the girls when other forms of discipline weren't effective.

Lab and McOwen describe the severity of the daughter's marks much differently than Finnegan, who said the girl's injury "wasn't minimal. This child's behind was covered (with bruises)."

McOwen said the redness lingered less than three days. Finnegan said it was detectable for at least four and the bruising covered one cheek and made a deep impression on the other.

Much more is at stake than the amount of force that can be administered in a spanking, said McOwenand her attorney, Janet M. Frederick Wilson. Wilson's husband, Dan A. Wilson, heads Parents for Children, a group that has gotten involved in numerous cases involving child welfare and parents' rights.

The Wilsons maintain charges against Lab are part of a scheme to transfer, under force of law, children from good home environments into foster care in order to create bigger FIA caseloads. The number of foster homes has skyrocketed in recent years, they said.

FIA officials insist their agency has no self-serving motives. But Parents For Children has questioned FIA ethics at scores of rallies around Michigan, including Genesee and Lapeer counties, often showing up in communities where defendants have retained Frederick-Wilson for legal representation.

Wilson said Parents For Children hopes the Lab trial "sets a clear standard" throughout Michigan.

Although spanking is a factor in some cases of alleged abuse, Wilson said, "To my knowledge there's never been a clear-cut 'spank or not to spank' case before the public."

Wilson charged that FIA has changed its main focus from problem children to other children who require less, if any, attention.

"They don't go after the difficult cases any more," he said.

FIA officials said law prohibits them from discussing specific cases, including the Lab prosecution.

McOwen said Lab's name has been placed on a state registry of child abusers on the basis of FIA accusations, without any court findings.

"If we have a preponderance of evidence that a child was abused or neglected, and that child is at high risk ... we must enter (the abuser's) name on the Central Children's Protective Registry," said JoAnne Nagy, FIA division manager for Children's Protective Services.

While she wouldn't discuss the Lab case, Nagy said spanking is acceptable. "The only time it would become unacceptable is when a spanking resulted in an injury to the child."

McOwen, who works as a receptionist, contends she is a victim of FIA abuse. She said she has received a "barrage" of telephone calls at work, threats that her children may become wards of the court and empty promises that the FIA would pay for programs she and her fiance have been ordered to participate in.

"I live in fear every day," she said. "Today is probably the first day in three months that my (window) blind has been open.

"I don't want anyone seeing my kids. I'm afraid if any one of them falls and has a bruise, that's going to be overblown."

She said she and Lab have missed many days of work to attend programs and hearings and otherwise deal with fallout from the case. Their legal fees, class costs, counseling fees and related expenses have been enormous and continue to mount, she said.

"Our credit is almost completely destroyed," McOwen said. "We just pay what we have to."

"Neither of us sleeps very well," McOwen said. "I'm a sleeper. I could sleep 12 hours. Now I'm lucky if I get three hours.

"I'm restless. I'm exhausted. I'm tired. I don't have a lot of patience."

The girl whose spanking sparked the turmoil "has become withdrawn. It's very rare that you see them smile or laugh anymore" since Lab left the house, McOwen said. "It's almost like a lot of their stability is gone because there's so much tension in the house."

Frederick-Wilson hopes to delay the start of Lab's trial.

One question the jury may not be able to resolve is when spanking crosses the line into abuse.

"I can't give you a bright-line test," Finnegan said. "A parent should know whether they're abusing."

She said spanking is likely to stay around for a long time because it serves a purpose.

"I can probably list every spanking I got, and every one of them was justified," Finnegan said.

Jerry Ernst covers Shiawassee County. He can be reached at (810) 766-6197, (517) 725-3112 or

Jordan Riak's letter of Jan. 28, 2001 to The Flint Journal
Dear Editor:

It seems that the spanking debate (Flint Journal: "Abuse or Not: Swats on Trial"--Jan. 28) is heating up again--if, indeed, it ever cooled. Let me give you my perspective.

Interview any 10 spankers asking each one to describe the correct way to spank a child, and you will get 10 very different descriptions, each of them self-serving. When wife-beating was called "reasonable chastisement," which wasn't very many years ago, wife beaters also defined the practicein ways that relieved their guilt and justified their behavior, e.g., "I would never strike my wife in the face. That's demeaning," or "I never chastise my wife in public or in front of the children," or "I don't believe a husband should hit his wife unless she really deserves it."Spankers play exactly the same game.One could fill pages with spanking recipes that are equally self-righteous. That's why I believe that the only reasonable position with regard to physical aggression by anyone against anyone is one of 'zero tolerance.'

In the practical sense, hitting a child, no matter what one calls it or how one does it, doesn't serve any useful purpose apart from temporarily dissipating the hitter's anger. Psychologically, it's dangerous for both the hitter and the victim. In the moral sense, it's wrong.

I am sure everyone remembers "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." That rule applies to our interactions with all people, including children. Especially children! No exceptions. Don't expect to get what you haven't given.

For more on this subject, I invite readers to visit Project NoSpank on the Web at

Jordan Riak,
Executive Director
Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education (PTAVE)

Robert Denton's letter of January 31, 2001 to The Flint Journal
Dear Editor:

About "Abuse or Not: Swats on Trial" (January 28): I'm an anthropologist who's specialized in the study of child rearing and violence for, oh, thirty years or so. Like a lot of anthropologists, I'm interested in the stories people tell each other (and visitors) about how they live, stories which use special language to obscure what's happening and often seem to have very little to do with how the people actually behave. I like the words "swats" or "spanking," for example, instead of "blows" or "hitting" or the other words that adults use to describe hitting each other.

The myth I'm interested in is that Americans love (or even like) kids. Certainly we don't like "childishness" or "immaturity." Still, politicians nowadays end almost every sentence with "for the sake of the children." It means about as much as the period at the end of the sentence. The US and Somalia are the only countries in the world that "execute" (=kill) children. Official "paddling" (=beating with sticks) of schoolchildren is the rule in almost half the US states, mainly among former slaveholders and former slaves. In some cases the pain is so bad that the children soil themselves or the beatings (sorry, "paddlings") have to be administered over a period of several days. But, although we hate "child abuse," we know that such "discipline" is "good for the kids" and that, in fact, they really want it, despite their protestations to the contrary.

A lot of people who were beaten (sorry, "spanked") as kids say that it made them better people or at least didn't hurt them. They should know that about four fifths of the people who suffered sexual abuse as children also say that it didn't have any serious aftereffects. It's hard to admit that you were beaten. "Spankings" are shaming, not just painful. You learn how powerless you are. In fact, the people who most strongly defend beating children usually come from the poorer strata of society; and one thing beaten children learn is to accept powerlessness. It prepares them to accept menial jobs. That's why slaveholders liked it. And when you get beaten, it's hard to accept that the people who did it were unjustified. That would mean you had no value at all. It's important to tell yourself the story that you deserved it, that it was loving, that you're a better person for it. Thank God kids are adaptive enough to tell themselves such stories. If they're old enough to tell themselves (or understand) such stories, i.e. over 2-3 years old; and young enough not to see the self-serving motives behind the stories, i.e., under 10-12 years old; then the beatings probably won't lead to really bad behavior as adults, according to lots and lots of studies. Administered earlier or later in the child's life, they will lead to adult violence.

The question in my mind is, since beating children of intermediate age doesn't make them either better or worse adults, why do it at all? "Spare the rod and spoil the child" is found nowhere in the Bible. And anyway, "the rod" in a culture of shepherds refers to kindly guidance by an shepherd-like authority. When the Psalmist says, "Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me," he is not saying "Beat me, baby, eight to the bar." I've lived for years with a people who never beat their children and think it's a disgusting and dangerous practice. The kids behave as well as American kids, and don't grow up into adults who beat each other up in bars.

The only answer I can see, laying the stories we tell aside, is that we like doing it, and we don't want anyone to interfere with our guilty pleasures.

R. K. Dentan, Ph.D.
State University of New York
Amherst, NY 14261

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