Child Abuse:

Toronto Star. (September 1996)

Let's outlaw any hitting of children

WHEN I READ the welcome news that a major task force will probe the causes

of child abuse deaths in Ontario,

By Michele Landsberg


It has been 15 years since Robertshaw, then a lawyer working in the federal

civil service, did her horrific and detailed report on child abuse deaths.


She discovered that up to 200 Canadian children every year were being

beaten, kicked, burned and battered to death - while doctors, children's

aid workers and coroners looked the other way, listing the deaths as



Had the federal government acted on her recommendations - instead, it

desperately tried to bury the report - how many tormented infants might

have been saved in the decade and a half since then?


Robertshaw now has a trenchant bit of advice for the task force.


What she pointed to was like the murder weapon that lies in full view in

detective stories - and is maddeningly overlooked just because it's so

obvious and innocent-looking.


It's Section 43 of the Canadian Criminal Code - the law that allows

teachers, parents and other adults in authority to use ``reasonable force''

for the ``correction'' of a child.


It has been successfully used as a legal defence by parents who bruised,

hurt and wounded their children with straps, sticks, belts and fists.


I confess that I balked when Robertshaw insisted, in her calm, factual

manner, that Section 43 was ``a key factor'' in the torment and murder of

children. But it turns out that she can back up her argument with powerful



Repeal Section 43 and hitting a child becomes an assault to be judged like

any other


Children's aid workers could step in earlier to potentially abusive

situations. The federal government - and hundreds of community

organizations - could credibly launch a massive education campaign on how

to raise children without violence.


Children would quickly learn that no one has a right to hurt them.


And our whole culture would undergo a sea-change. We would live in a

climate in which hitting children is no longer acceptable.


Here's one incisive statistic that should zing straight to the hearts of

those who so vociferously insist on their right to hit their kids: Parents

who approve of physical punishment have a child abuse rate four times

higher than those who disapprove.


``The majority of child abuse cases are `disciplinary incidents' in which

the parents admit that they just lost it and went too far,'' said

psychologist Dr. Joan Durrant, professor of family studies at the

University of Manitoba, who carried out a recent eye-opening study for the

federal government.


She particularly remembered the case of a father who, to force his daughter

to eat dinner faster, put a knife on the table - and ended up stabbing her

with it.


Does hitting a child really work as discipline?


Emphatically not. Quite the opposite.


Among findings cited by Dr. Durrant: there's a clear association between a

mother's use of corporal punishment and severe tantrums among



There are also strong links between frequent spankings and all forms of

children's and teens' theft, aggression, assault and violent behavior

against siblings, schoolmates and parents.


One large British study showed that the best predictors of having a

criminal record by age 20 were having been hit at least once a week at age

11 and having a mother who strongly believed in corporal punishment.


In fact, even though most Canadian parents admit to swatting their children

at least once, almost all say they think physical punishment is ineffective

- and they're ashamed of having used it.<


When more than a quarter of a million Canadian children experience some

form of abuse each year - and when physical punishment is responsible for

the majority of child abuse cases - how can the task force not demand the

repeal of Section 43, which condones violence against the most defenceless?


Of course, social conservatives will fall back on their tired old excuse

for doing nothing: ``You can't change human nature.'' Maybe not, but the

point of law is to change human behavior.


We did it with smoking, with drunk driving, with seat belts.


The most dramatic example of the power of law to shape public values is in

Sweden, where corporal punishment was banned in 1979.


The Swedish rate of approval of corporal punishment has since tumbled from

53 per cent to 11 per cent - and Sweden has one of the lowest child abuse

death rates in the world.


Violence toward children is, sadly, a learned behavior.<


hose who have been beaten grow up believing the brutality was justified -

and that they have the right to inflict the same pain on their own flesh

and blood.


Of course, the causes of child abuse are many and complex. ``But this is

one specific, obvious piece that we keep missing. If we don't hit them, we

can't physically harm them,'' said Dr. Durrant.


Every member of the task force has a grave duty to examine his or her own

past experience and confront the personal legacy of any corporal



In light of the evidence, it's no longer tolerable for responsible adults

to say, ``It didn't hurt me any.'' It did. It does.<


here's every reason to believe that unless we change our disgustingly

abusive law, we can't even begin to stop the battering, the broken bones -

and the murder




Does corporal punishment work, Europe critics ask.


LONDON (Special) -


A 12-year-old British boy is taking his stepfather to the European Court of

Human Rights, saying he was beaten.


The media again has gone overboard, hauling in progressives and

reactionaries and often reducing the argument to the ``it-did-me-good'' or

``it-damaged-me-profoundly'' level.<


British law permits physical punishment or ``reasonable chastisement'' but

it appears to give a good number of parents the idea that they have carte

blanche to use physical punishment as often and as vigorously as they



An important piece of British government research last year, based on

interviews with more than 400 people, showed that 91 per cent of children

had been hit at some time and 77 per cent in the preceding year.


Fifteen per cent of mothers reported using ``severe'' physical punishment,

frequently with implements and repeated actions over a long period.


Three-quarters of year-old babies were hit in the year preceding

interviews; 38 per cent of 4-year-olds and and 27 per cent of 7-year-olds

were hit more often than once a week.


Cases thrown out by the British courts include that of a father who

admitted beating his 5- and 8-year-old sons with a leather belt; a mother

who beat her children with a slipper so that all were badly bruised; a

father who repeatedly took down his teenage son's trousers and whipped him

with a belt until he bled; a mother who admitted beating her daughter with

a garden cane and electrical cord.


Tourist was acquitted after spanking his daughter



In Canada last year, an Illinois tourist was acquitted of assault after

spanking his 5-year-old daughter in a London, Ont. parking lot the previous

Labor Day. Under Canadian law, parents are allowed to spank their children

as long as it is not excessive.


The key question to many is not whether this is unacceptable, but does it

work? On the contrary, it may well do harm and predispose children to be

more, not less, anti-social according to EPOCH (End Physical Punishment Of



This points to various pieces of research linking regular physical

punishment with violence later in life


Perhaps the best way to find out whether it is possible to bring up

social-minded children without hitting is to look at countries where it has

been banned.


Austria outlawed child-beating seven years ago. Pediatricians, educators

and social workers say the legislation has not eliminated physical violence

against children, but it has created a useful deterrent that makes parents

or guardians think twice before administering corporal punishment.<


`The law now bans physical and psychic hurting of children,'' says Anton

Schmid, a lawyer specializing in children's rights cases.


``Of course, the bit about psychic abuse is a rubber paragraph, because

it's very difficult to prove. But the physical violence bit is very

positive because it makes parents think differently about how to discipline

their kids.''


Despite the law, however, kindergarten, school, and family culture,

especially in Vienna, has traditionally had a stiff, repressive air about

it, with corporal punishment an integral part of growing up.


``I can't imagine a judge punishing a mother or father for giving the kid a

box around the ears,'' says a pediatrician who trains kindergarten

teachers. ``But if there are bad and repeated beatings needing, for

example, hospital treatment, of course the courts should intervene.''


In schools in Cyprus the rules are so tough on any form of physical

punishment that even a slap on the wrist leaves a teacher liable to instant



Maria Theodotou, a teacher with 26 years' experience, says: ``For us, it is

extremely difficult. We have no power and must rely instead on the family

to teach discipline to their young ones. Unfortunately they rarely do, but

our hands are tied. We can't do anything other than shout at them or award

low marks for behavior.


`We can send them home from class early, and in exceptional cases push for

the students to receive professional counselling. But the average Cypriot

family, while not putting much emphasis on strict behavior, is very firm on

the necessity to pass exams.''


Even if they are badly behaved in class, it is not a trait that leads them

to a life of crime, the figures for Cyprus being among the lowest in the



For Maria Myles, who has two teenage sons, caning is quite unnecessary:

``Cypriots just don't like it and if you hear someone saying they think

it's a good idea, they're likely to be talking about someone else's child

needing to be whacked. They wouldn't dream of doing it to their own kids.


``So, yes, it is a problem but not one which is going to be solved by the

use of a stick.


In Sweden, it would be anathema to scold children physically



`I have a 12-year-old and a 17-year-old, and I learned how to bring them up

from my mother-in-law, who's Irish. Her way of doing it was to be tough

from the start. Teach them the ground rules and don't give in. It's so much

better to talk to them and let them understand where they're going wrong.''


This style of discipline is echoed by Sophie Mercurio, who has brought up

four children.


``Once in a while I used to give them a slap, but that was an instant

reaction. Using a cane is a pre-meditated move, because it has to be kept

somewhere and fetched.


``Frankly, if you have to beat a child there is something seriously



Sweden outlawed corporal punishment in 1979. None of Swedish mother Annika

Bernitz's seven children has ever received so much as a slap.


To Bernitz, the 1979 legislation is little more than a legal safety net in

a society where it would be anathema to scold children physically.<


``The law did not surprise anyone when it was introduced. Swedish society

was ready to put into print what people were already practising,'' said

Bernitz, 50.


But studies indicate that violence against children has declined in the 17

years since slapping became illegal and the government appointed a

children's ombudsman, charged with ensuring that Sweden abides by the

United Nations convention on children's rights.


According to Asa Sanden, who last year carried out a survey into

children's and adults' attitudes toward corporal punishment, it appears

that fewer and fewer people are receiving or administering beatings.


Among adults, 11 per cent were favorable to it, against 6 per cent among

the teenagers.


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