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Angiulo: Further Refining Parental Discipline Standards in MA

Monday, November 02, 2015


Being a parent is one of the hardest and most enjoyable things a person can do with their time.  Part of the challenge comes when it's time to set limits on a child's behavior.  Earlier in 2015 the Supreme Judicial Court ruled on when physical discipline may be used. The Appeals court looked at the issue of parental discipline this past week and defined who is lawfully entitled to wield such authority.

In Commonwealth v. Packer a stepmother was convicted at trial for assault and battery of her stepdaughter.  On appeal, the defense wanted the verdict overturned because of an instruction they felt should have been given to the jury regarding parental discipline.

The parental discipline privilege is an affirmative defense similar in nature to a self-defense instruction. The idea is that a parent, or someone acting as a parent with those same responsibilities, may use reasonable force for discipline, but cannot use excessive force.  Exactly where that line is between excessive and reasonable force is a question that can only be answered by the finder of fact.  Importantly, once the instruction is given, the Commonwealth then bears the burden of disproving at least one prong of the defense beyond a reasonable doubt.   

At trial, the dispute arose when the co-defendant, who was the father of the child in question, received a parental discipline instruction, while Ms. Packer did not.  The trial judge's explanation was that the defendant was not the child's legal guardian and that there was insufficient evidence that she was acting in a parental role.

Upon review the Appeals Court looked to precedent and the facts of the case before overturning the verdict.  According to their analyses, the parental discipline privilege applies to both parents and guardians. In addition, step-parents are not automatically disqualified from this category, nor was this defendant subjectively disqualified as she played an extensive role in raising the alleged victim. During the course of testimony the defendant was called “mom” by the alleged victim, the biological mother of the child was not a part of the family, and the stepmother and father of the child had formed a new family including additional children. The defense was, therefore, able to show sufficient connection between this child and this defendant to justify a parental discipline instruction.

Looking back to a case from 1860, the Appeals Court noted that diverse family structures are a part of the Commonwealth's society. Just like each one of these family units are made of individual people, the relationships between them will also be unique.  In our laws, a person may be the head of a household yet have no biological link to the children they care for.  As the Appeals Court pointed out, that does not diminish their responsibility to those children and part of that responsibility includes disciplining in appropriate ways.

Leonardo Angiulo is an Attorney with the firm of Glickman, Sugarman, Kneeland & Gribouski in Worcester handling legal matters across the Commonwealth. He can be reached by email at [email protected] 


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