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Is it illegal to spank your child in NC?

North Carolina is a state that allows physical punishment to discipline children. In the recent past, the question of when punishment becomes child abuse has surfaced in the state. Though different members of the public give different answers based on their own upbringing and values, what does North Carolina law say?

If you or a loved one has experienced child abuse, contact our office today to schedule a free initial consultation an case evaluation.

State v Varner – Child Abuse or Moderate Punishment?

In 2017, a court case addressing what it means to serve “moderate punishment” caused controversy throughout the state. This case involved a father, Varner, and his 10-year-old son. One night, Varner’s son did not want to eat dinner. Varner’s response was to paddle his son’s left thigh and foot, cursing at him in between. The paddling left bruises that lasted for days and prevented the boy from participating in gym class.

The court of appeals tried Varner for felony child abuse, stating that he exceeded the statutes of moderate punishment by intentionally inflicting long-lasting pain and suffering onto his son. Although the court dismissed this charge, Varner was charged for misdemeanor child abuse. This charge implied that Varner did not intentionally cause severe injury to his son.

However, the court that held the trial held a conference with the jury to communicate that the judge would not convict Varner if it was determined that he only inflicted moderate punishment onto his son.

Moderate punishment, as defined by the judge, is punishment that doesn’t cause chronic injury. This information was supposed to dictate the outcome of the trial, but the State didn’t agree with the definition. Instead, the trial court readdressed the jury stating they were to make a decision based on common sense.

What Constitutes Child Abuse?

This instruction caused the court of appeals to redefine what child abuse means:

  • Causing injury that is long-lasting or permanent
  • Punishing the child out of ill-will, not to discipline
  • Punishing using cruel methods

There was not enough evidence to prove that Varner inflicted lasting injuries onto his child. Moreover, the jury still didn’t have a set definition for moderate punishment. Because of these gray areas, the court overturned the jury’s ruling that Varner was guilty.

When Does Punishment Become Abuse?

After State v Varner, it became clear that defining what counts as abuse in North Carolina comes down to a lot of contextual details. The state’s current child abuse laws identify the following behaviors as child abuse:

  • Purposefully inflicting, or risking, injury
  • Using cruel/inappropriate methods, or objects, to modify behavior. There are currently lawsuits and debate surrounding whether behavior modification practices intended to cure homosexuality fall under this category.
  • Any form of sexual misconduct. This includes providing inappropriate materials to the child, taking pictures, rape, incest, molestation, purchasing a child, or purchasing sex from a child.
  • Emotional abuse that manifests as anxiety, depression, aggression, or suicidal ideation.

North Carolina still allows corporal punishment as a form of discipline. So, no; it is not illegal to spank your child in the state. It is within the parents’ rights to determine how to effectively administer punishment.

However, you must only use this form of punishment as a means of discipline and must not inflict permanent physical or emotional damage to your child.

Public Opinion

Many residents have questions about child abuse law, and if it should be amended in some way. Some individuals question what impact the frequency of punishment has on a child, and if that should be a factor in determining child abuse.

Others debate that corporal punishment is not appropriate for certain age groups because of their lack of development. Nevertheless, it stands that physical punishment is an acceptable form of discipline – within reason – in the state of North Carolina.