In a case that explores the sometimes-blurry line between tough love and abuse, a Plymouth man has been cleared by the Department of Social Services for spanking his son with a belt, but still faces a June 1 hearing on charges of domestic assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.
Charles S. Enloe, 42, was arrested on April 27 at the Plymouth police station after admitting he used a belt to lightly strike his son for forgetting his homework. That prompted investigations by both DSS and police.
''We have completed the investigation. It did not support the allegation of abuse," Denise Monteiro, DSS spokeswoman, said this week. ''We . . . found there was no physical abuse." She said the department's investigation was based on 10 days of interviews with pediatricians, police, and teachers.
Police last week said they are confident they did the right thing in charging Enloe. ''I know it is a difficult topic," said Plymouth police Captain Michael Botieri. The department has some leeway on corporal punishment if it involves an open hand and there are no injuries, he said, but once an instrument -- a stick, a club, a belt -- is introduced, the police are required to react to the situation.
''The action we took was appropriate," said Botieri.
This week's DSS finding, he said Tuesday, doesn't change his department's position. ''What they do is separate from what we do . . . they are not determining whether a crime was committed. They are just determining if there are unsafe conditions, and then they do something for the child," said Botieri. ''We never said it was an unsafe place, we just said a crime occurred, and we are mandated to do what we did."
The case came to the attention of authorities when Enloe's former wife, Diana Dematteo, filed an emergency order against him on behalf of their son, saying she was afraid of his aggressive behavior, according to the incident report on file with the court.
The 12-year-old boy told police he forgot to bring his homework home and his father began yelling at him, and then struck him three times on the buttocks, according to the report. Having forgotten his homework again, he feared a second lashing, the report stated.
Based on that report, Enloe was called to the station. He went voluntarily -- but never imagined he'd be arrested and spend the next two hours in jail, Enloe said.
''I had no idea whatsoever that spanking my son with a belt was going to be a felony charge," he said.
Following the arrest, the boy was removed from Enloe's house overnight and evaluated by a pediatrician. He has since been returned to Enloe's custody as the father awaits next month's hearing. Enloe said his son, who was failing school before he came to live with him in March, is improving academically.
The laws in Massachusetts are well defined when it comes to prohibiting corporal punishment in public schools. But the rules on domestic spanking are ambiguous, leaving room for interpretation that could have criminal consequences for unsuspecting parents. Physical abuse, according to the Department of Social Services, is a nonaccidental act against a child under 18 that causes or creates a substantial risk of physical or emotional injury.
The line between tough love and abuse can be less than clear, authorities said.
''Spanking or humiliation or pain used to reach the point of trauma does have lasting effects on kids," said Terry Alan Hayes, a child psychologist in Marshfield. ''Yes, parents who use spanking will notice changes, but the long-term emotional reactions of fear, anger, and opposition are much more serious."
It will be up to the courts to decide what happens next. A judge could dismiss the case. Being found guilty of assaulting a juvenile with a dangerous weapon holds a maximum penalty of 10 years in state prison, or up to two½years in a house of correction, and/or a fine up to $5,000.
Enloe, who says he was ''raised by the belt" and believes it is a parent's right to spank a child, is still reeling over his arrest.
''I didn't abuse the child, I didn't beat the child," he says. ''I gave him a spanking because he forgot his homework."
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