The Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld a Dorchester woman's conviction for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon - the belt with which she struck her five-year-old son in the face after he acted out in kindergarten.
In an appeal of her sentence, Janera Dobson's attorney cited a 2015 Supreme Judicial Court ruling that upheld the "parental discipline privilege," the right of parents to use some physical force in disciplining children, and said that Dobson hadn't meant to beat her child in the face with the belt - only his legs - but that she missed on one stroke.
But the appeals court noted that the SJC decision set limits on the force that parents could use, that it be "reasonable" and that it "neither causes, nor creates a substantial risk of causing, physical harm (beyond fleeting pain or minor, transient marks), gross degradation, or severe mental distress."
The court ruled that Dobson went far beyond that on May 2, 2014, and that the evidence was clear she intended to beat her child in the face with the belt - leaving a red mark that was visible for a long time.
Hitting a five year old in the face with a leather belt with sufficient force to leave a mark could well have caused serious injury to his eyes or some other part of his face. Cases have long acknowledged that a belt can be used as a dangerous weapon, particularly when employed against a child. ...
The question then, is whether such a use of force was reasonable, under all of the circumstances, as a matter of parental discipline, under the principles explained in Dorvil, supra. In evaluating the reasonableness of striking a child in the face with a belt, the judge properly could take into account a variety of factors, including "the child's 'age,' the 'physical and mental condition of the child,' and 'the nature of [the child's] offense,'" among others. ... Here, the only additional evidence was the mother's testimony that her child had "acted out" at school on "numerous" occasions, and that she disciplined him for having deliberately done so again on a day when there were observers in the child's kindergarten classroom. There was no indication that the discipline was used for the child's safety -- for example, to keep him from going into the street or touching something hot. On this evidence, the judge rationally could have found that it was unreasonable for the mother to strike her five year old child in the face with a leather belt for unspecified misbehavior in his kindergarten classroom. ...