Parents can spank their children, but if they leave welts they can be charged with child abuse, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a decision that wades into an arena some consider private.
In a 19-page ruling, the justices struggled with drawing a precise line between ``permissible corporal punishment and prohibited child abuse.''
The court ruled against a Broward County man, Willie Raford, who was convicted of felony child abuse for repeatedly striking his girlfriend's 8-year-old son with a belt. The beating left bruises on the child's buttocks, legs and lower back, according to court documents.
''A parent can cause child abuse,'' said Carolyn Snurkowski, deputy attorney general for criminal appeals at the Florida attorney general's office. ``There comes a time when it crosses the line.''
The ruling comes after revelations last month that the new head of the Department of Children & Families, Jerry Regier, endorsed spanking as a form of punishment in essays written years ago -- statements from which he has since distanced himself.
The court expressed reservations about its own perch on the front lines of the debate, saying, ``This difficult task is principally a legislative function, better left to the Legislature.'
Still, some defended the ruling, saying it did not intrude into private family matters.
''I don't think that this is far afield from what we traditionally think is the role of the parent,'' Snurkowski said. ``And the role of the parent is not to abuse the child.''
The dispute began after a Broward County judge sentenced Raford, 36, to five years in prison in 1998. On appeal, Raford's attorney argued that as the boyfriend of the child's mother, he had the standing of a parent. Under Florida law, he said, he could not be prosecuted for child abuse.
Not so, the court said. In a unanimous decision, the court upheld his conviction.
Attorneys for Raford could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.
The court's decision interpreting the state's child-abuse statute does not herald a change in Florida law, said Snurkowski, whose office represented the state in the appeal.
''I think it's probably an accurate reflection of what the law is and what the Legislature intended,'' Snurkowski said.
``The parent can't do those kinds of things.''