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Can You Legally Spank Your Child in California?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Sep 28, 2023

Let's review the often controversial issue of corporal punishment in California, which has strict laws against child abuse and harsh penalties for anyone convicted as defined under Penal Code 273d PC.

While corporal punishment (spanking) is not illegal under California law, the state's definition of child abuse makes it a crime if the punishment is considered cruel and excessive or if injury or a "traumatic condition" results from it.

Can You Legally Spank Your Child in California?
In California, corporal punishment must be with reasonable limits to be considered legal.

Simply put, it is not necessarily illegal to spank or use corporal punishment on your child, but the physical punishment cannot be excessive. A parent can spank a child with an object if it is justifiable, which means a reasonable person would find that punishment necessary under the circumstances.

Typically, the courts are looking for injury. If you inflict visible injury on your child, you may have crossed over from reasonable discipline to child abuse.

Excessive or unreasonable spanking could lead to allegations of child abuse that would initiate a juvenile dependency case, an investigation from child protective services, and the filing of criminal charges.

In California, Penal Code 273d PC child abuse occurs when you willfully inflict cruel or inhuman corporal punishment upon a child or an injury resulting in a traumatic condition, a wound, or other bodily injury caused by the direct application of physical force.

An injury is inflicted willfully if the act causing the injury is done on purpose. Notably, you don't need to intend to injure your child or violate the law.

This creates an ambiguity under which specific actions can be misinterpreted, and witnesses may have differing ideas about what is considered excessive.

The upshot is that it is relatively easy for a legal act of corporal punishment to cross the line into a crime and for legal spanking to result in unfair accusations of child abuse.

What Does the Law Say?

Under California Penal Code 273d PC, child abuse is defined as inflicting on a child "any cruel or inhuman corporal punishment or an injury resulting in a traumatic condition." Under this definition, child abuse occurs when:

  • The corporal punishment is excessive (cruel or inhuman) or
  • Visible injury or some form of trauma results from the punishment.

"Traumatic condition" can include physical injury or psychological trauma under this definition. Additionally, no definition is given for "cruel" or "inhuman," leaving these words up for broad interpretation. Under this definition, examples of what might be considered child abuse in California include, but are not limited to:

  • Spanking a child to the point of leaving a lasting mark (i.e., injury);
  • Spanking a child severely and frequently to the point that the child displays emotional problems;
  • Hitting a child in the face or head;
  • Threatening a child with physical harm

Child abuse under PC 273d can be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor, called a “wobbler.” If charged as a felony, the penalties carry two, four, or six years in jail and a $6,000 fine. If the defendant has a prior felony child abuse conviction within the preceding ten years, an additional four years can be added to the sentence. If charged as a misdemeanor, the penalties are up to one year in county jail and a $6,000 fine.

In most cases, probation is possible in a child abuse case, which means you would be placed on probation under the following conditions:

  • Three years minimum probation and up to six years for a felony case;
  • A protective order to protect the child from further violence;
  • Complete a one-year child abuser's treatment counseling program.

Corporal Punishment vs. Child Abuse

Corporal punishment, by definition, refers to the use of physical force with the intent to cause a child to experience pain, but not injury, for the purpose of correction or control of the child's behavior. By this definition, spanking a child for reasonable disciplinary purposes is entirely legal in California.

Corporal Punishment vs. Child Abuse
Corporal punishment is the use of physical force for a child to experience pain, but not injury.

Parents are permitted to use reasonable and necessary force to discipline their children. However, what is deemed "reasonable" is often subjective and can vary from case to case.

The distinguishing factor between corporal punishment and abuse lies primarily in the intent and the outcome. Whereas the former is meant to correct behavior without causing injury, the latter is characterized by actions resulting in harm, injury, trauma, and death in extreme situations.

In California, the line between corporal punishment and abuse can sometimes blur, leading to confusion and legal disputes.

For instance, spanking a child as a form of discipline may be considered corporal punishment. Still, if it leaves visible marks or results in injury, it could cross into the territory of abuse.

Mandatory Reporters

To complicate matters further, California law designates certain people as "mandatory reporters," meaning if these people see indicators that cause them to suspect child abuse or neglect, they are required by law to report it to the authorities. Mandatory reporters in California include, but are not limited to:

  • Teachers and school employees;
  • Medical professionals (i.e., doctors, nurses, EMTs);
  • Social workers and counselors;
  • Members of the police and fire departments;
  • Members of the clergy

Thus, if you administer corporal punishment in the presence of a mandated reporter who deems your actions excessive—or any of these professionals observes physical signs or behaviors in your child that make them suspect abuse—it could result in criminal charges for you.

What Can You Do Legally?

Given these conditions, it is very possible for parents and guardians acting within their rights to be wrongfully accused of child abuse. To avoid crossing into abusive territory while still disciplining children through corporal punishment, you should do the following:

  • Keep your actions to the bare minimum necessary for corrective or disciplinary purposes;
  • Explain to your child why you are punishing them and what behavior needs correcting;
  • Ensure that spanking does not cause any injuries, bruises, marks, etc.;
  • Avoid using objects (i.e., paddles, belts, or anything that could inflict injury) as a means to administer punishment;
  • Avoid punishing a child in the presence of mandatory reporters or other people who may misinterpret your actions.

What are the Legal Ramifications for Excessive Corporal Punishment?

The legal consequences of crossing the line from corporal punishment to abuse can be severe in California. If found guilty of child abuse under Penal Code Section 273d, you could face imprisonment in a county jail for up to one year or in state prison for two, four, or six years, depending on the severity of the injury and any prior criminal record.

Your name could be listed on the Child Abuse Central Index (CACI) even if criminal charges are never filed against you if the allegations of child abuse or neglect are substantiated.

A substantiated report is determined by the investigator who investigated to consider child abuse or neglect. Suppose you want your name removed from the CACI. In that case, you must promptly request a grievance hearing.

A California criminal defense lawyer can use the defenses against child abuse for excessive spanking, including that the allegations are false, the injuries were caused by something other than abuse, you were acting within your legal right to discipline the child, and the result of an accident.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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