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Is Spanking a Child Considered Domestic Violence in Florida?

Many Florida parents subscribe to the philosophy of “spare the rod, spoil the child.” But is spanking a child ever considered an act of domestic violence in Florida?

As our Fort Lauderdale domestic violence defense lawyers can explain, it’s not illegal to spank your child in Florida. However, there’s not a clear line on when an act of parental discipline crosses the line over into child abuse or domestic violence. The question will be whether the act causes physical or emotional “harm” to the child - something that has the potential to be very broadly interpreted. This can come into play not only in criminal court, but also when courts are weighing requests for domestic violence injunctions. 

For this reason, anyone accused of domestic violence or child abuse for spanking a child would be wise to hire a lawyer before speaking to investigators. Don’t assume you’ll be able to talk your way out of it with investigators simply by explaining, “He wasn’t really hurt,” or, “That’s how I was raised.” The threshold for what constitutes “harm” in these cases may not be plainly obvious. It’s truly best to have an attorney speaking on your behalf who recognizes the criteria of “harm” police are considering. 

What is Child Abuse?

F.S. 39.01(2) expressly states that corporal punishment of a child by their parent or legal guardian in order to discipline isn’t abuse in Florida “when it does not result in harm to the child.”

Abuse of a child is considered a willful act or threatened act that results in “any physical, mental, or sexual injury, or harm that causes or is likely to cause the child’s physical, mental, and emotional health to be significantly impaired.” Child abuse, as defined in F.S. 827.03, is a third-degree felony, punishable by up to 5 years in prison. 

Both acts and omissions can be characterized as abuse of a child. (So striking a child may be abuse, but so could not allowing your child to come inside during inclement weather as a punishment.) A parent accused of child abuse may argue corporal discipline as a defense. 

The right of the parent to “moderately chastise or correct a child under their authority” was solidified in the 1893 Florida Supreme Court case of Marshall v. Reams. However, as that same Court noted nearly 110 years later, that power isn’t absolute. Parents (or those in loco parentis) don’t have absolute immunity when it comes to disciplining their children. In the 2002 case of Raford v. State, the Florida Supreme Court ruled a parent can be convicted of felony child abuse if there’s evidence a child incurred “harm” during spanking or other corporal punishment. 

Further, even if it’s the defendant parent’s position that the discipline was reasonable, the onus is on the defense attorney to raise the affirmative defense of parental privilege to administer corporal punishment. If that argument isn’t raised at the beginning of the case, it could be waived entirely. 

When Discipline is Considered Domestic Violence or Abuse

The potential for criminal child abuse charges for discipline can apply even for children (or more likely teens) who are the size of an average adult. In the 2007 appeal to the Fla. 1st DCA (and later to the Florida Supreme Court) in Czapla v. State, the defendant had argued with his 15-year-old son for failure to do yard work. The father punched his son in the head, pushed him into another room onto the floor and then kicked him while he lay on the floor. At the time, the teen was 160 pounds, the size of a full-grown man. Yet his father was charged with felony child abuse. Defendant argued he was administering corporal punishment, and that the state failed to prove the child had suffered significant harm. Defendant cited Raford, and said his conviction conflicted with that ruling. In Raford, it was established that there’s no parental privilege that bars prosecution for felony child abuse; while a parent can argue as an affirmative defense their parental right to adminster corporal punishment, it must be “reasonable” and “non-excessive.” The appellate court gave an example, “typical spanking.” But the court, in affirming the conviction (and later with the state supreme court’s denial of a review) cautioned “parents who quickly turn to corporal punishment, as there is a serious risk of ‘going too far’ every time physical punishment is administered.”

A parent’s privilege to use reasonable discipline on a child won’t prohibit a case of child abuse if the physical impact is brusing that is severe enough to land a child in a hospital. While parental privilege may be adequate to prevent privilege for simple battery, there’s no such privilege where for the separate, statutory crime of child abuse.

In general, a single spank isn’t likely to result in a criminal conviction. However, it isn’t impossible. 

In the 2011 case of G.C. v. R.S., the Fla. 1st DCA sided with a father fighting a domestic violence injunction filed by the child’s mother on the child’s behalf after the father spanked the child. The father argued a single spank on the buttocks of a child in response to defiant and/or disrespectful behavior is reasonable and is not considered excessive corporal punishment. The appellate court agreed with him, noting that while the mother had standing to seek an injunction against domestic violence against her former spouse on behalf of their child, common law protected his right as a father to administer reasonable corporal punishment. Reasonable discipline can be raised as a defense in Florida domestic violence injunction claims. This father’s action of a single spanking was not domestic violence - as a matter of law, the court ruled. 

Anyone who is accused of Florida child abuse for administering corporal punishment should speak to an experienced defense attorney immediately to determine your best strategy to avoid serious legal and personal consequences. 

If you have been charged with child abuse or domestic violence in South Florida, call The Ansara Law Firm in Fort Lauderdale today for your free initial consultation at (954) 761-4011.

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