Deseret News, February 22, 2001

Spanking bill takes some hits
Controversial measure now goes before Senate

By Jennifer Dobner, Deseret News staff writer

Utah's proposed spanking law has hit the Worldwide Web. The Internet site has posted an indictment of Rep. Matt Throckmorton's HB387, calling it a "wrong-headed message to the general public."

Spanking is the equivalent of assault and battery on a child and should never be seen as acceptable, said Jordan Riak, a retired educator, who founded PTAVE (Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education) in 1978 and maintains the nospank Web site. The Web site article about Throckmorton's bill, titled "What they didn't tell you about Utah House Bill 387," was written by Riak.

"Expect this to be a replay of events earlier in our history when lawmakers tried to decide at what point legitimate physical chastisement of wives by their husbands crossed the line and became something else," Riak writes. Throckmorton dismissed Riak's comments as "salacious" and "not worth commenting on." The Utah County Republican's bill, which has already passed through the House, passed out of the Senate Human Services Committee on Wednesday on vote of 3-1 and is now before the full Senate. Sen. Ed Allen, D-Ogden, was the lone dissenter.

"I woke up my wife, Pat, to talk to her about (the bill)," said Allen, who admits to spanking the first two of his five children. "She said we ought to vote in favor of discipline, but I am concerned about what message we are sending."

Throckmorton argues that the bill, which would prevent the Division of Child and Family Services from substantiating some allegations of abuse, will protect parents who choose to use spanking as a "reasonable form of discipline."

Throckmorton said he "swats" his own 5-year-old daughter about twice a year and only when she engages in "totally inappropriate behavior." By drawing a clear line between reasonable discipline and abuse the bill specifies abuse as actions that result in bruising, fractures, sprains or dislocations, internal injuries such as bleeding and other kinds of discernible physical damage DCFS should also be better protected in lawsuits. Much of the bill's language is lifted from DCFS policy, but Throckmorton believes it needs to be in statute because policies are easily changed.

Child advocate Katie Gregory of Utah Children asked the committee not to pass the bill, saying all parents struggle with the issue of discipline and that the decisions are too individualized to attempt to legislate.

"I think you'd be sending the wrong message to the public that the Legislature supports spanking children," Gregory said. "Defining how much discipline is too much is a slippery slope."

Questions were also raised about the bill's inclusion of "emotional distress" as abuse.

Utah Eagle Forum director Gayle Ruzika said DCFS would be at her door on a weekly basis if they knew of the "weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth" exhibited when Ruzicka's 14-year-old daughter is restricted from weekend social activities due to poor grades.

"That's emotional distress," Ruzika said.

Although it is difficult to legislate private behaviors, Brigham Young University social work professor Anne Horton says she believes the bill will at least begin the conversation about the appropriateness of some forms of discipline. The author of numerous books on child abuse, Horton doesn't believe in spanking but says community standards continually change as more is learned about the effects of certain behavior.

"It's an odd thing to try to legislate in a way. But you are talking about a very conservative community, with very traditional ideas about child rearing . . . most of whom have been spanked," Horton said in an interview. "I think they are just trying to set some guidelines and get them on the books. We had the same problem 30 years ago with sexual abuse and the question how do you prove it? Those are just thing that are part of an evolutionary process. We'll start here and see how it flies and if it helps."


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