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Understanding the Difference Between Discipline vs Abuse

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A mother speaks harshly to her daughter.

Mandated reporters, supporters, and child safety advocates often have to determine what constitutes suspected abuse of a child, and what doesn’t.

Supporters have a legal and ethical duty to protect children from abuse and neglect and are willing to do whatever they need to keep children safe. However, one big concern for the professionals legally required to report suspected child abuse is understanding the definitions of abuse.

Identifying potential abuse isn’t always a black-or-white issue. When it comes to the discipline of a child by an adult caregiver, the topic can veer into “gray” territory.

Understanding Cultural Differences for Raising a Child

For one family, physical discipline of any kind may be viewed as child abuse. For another, spankings may be considered a normal part of raising a child.

Not only can beliefs about discipline vary from family to family, but they can also vary based on culture.

As someone who is legally required to report suspected child abuse, it’s important to understand how your personal culture influences your views on discipline.

It’s common to see your own culture as the “normal” or “correct” one. Yet it can be counterproductive to base your evaluation of child abuse or neglect on your own experience, beliefs, and upbringing.

Be aware of your beliefs, values, and biases and how they influence your view of child abuse.

Cultures vary in many ways, and no one culture is more normal or correct than another. The child-rearing practices that may seem strange — or even dangerous — to an outside observer may in actuality be standard practice for someone else’s race, religion, or ethnicity.

The number one priority for a mandated reporter is to protect children from abuse and neglect.

However, those who are legally required to report suspected abuse must also bear the responsibility of not adding undue stress to a family that does not warrant it.

Understanding the difference between real abuse vs. a culturally different discipline could help child supporters and advocates decide if an abuse report is warranted, and not a knee-jerk reaction to a cultural bias.

What’s the Difference Between Discipline and Child Abuse?

Certain practices that are seen as abusive in the United States may be accepted by other cultures. However, Child Welfare Services still uses the penal code’s definition of child abuse to determine if it is abuse or discipline.

The definition of child abuse is defined by both Federal and State laws.

Federal Definition of Abuse

At the Federal level, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) has defined child abuse and neglect as:

“any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caregiver that results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation, or an act or failure to act that presents an imminent risk of serious harm."

State Definitions of Abuse

State definitions of abuse vary.

California Definitions of Abuse
Under California Penal Code 273d PC, child abuse is defined as:

“Anyone who willfully inflicts on a child any cruel or inhuman corporal [i.e., physical] punishment or an injury that results in traumatic condition.”

A “traumatic condition” is described as a wound or other bodily injury. It could be a minor injury or serious, caused by the direct application of physical force. This means discipline outside of the bounds of “reasonable discipline,” that injures or traumatizes a child as a result.

Arizona Definitions of Abuse Under Arizona Penal Code 13-3620, a report for child abuse is required when:

“A report is required when a mandatory reporter reasonably believes that a child is or has been the victim of physical injury, abuse or child abuse, a reportable offense (including child pornography, child sex trafficking, or incest), or neglect that appears to have been inflicted on the child by other than accidental means or that is not explained by the available medical history as being accidental in nature, or the person reasonably believes there has been a denial or deprivation of necessary medical treatment or surgical care or nourishment with the intent to cause or allow the death of an infant.”

Find definitions of abuse and neglect in every state from the Children’s Bureau.

When Does Discipline Cross the Line?

Despite cultural differences, discipline can be considered child abuse. When does discipline cross the line?

Discipline is probably excessive if:

  • Child is physically injured, including bruising, broken skin, swelling, or in a situation that requires medical attention
  • Punishment is meant to instill fear rather than to educate the child
  • Caretaker, whether a parent, guardian, or school official, loses control
  • Action is inappropriate for the child’s age
  • Action results from a caretaker’s unreasonable demands or expectations for the child

Mandated Reporter Training Helps Supporters Understand the Difference

It can be tough to tell the difference between abuse and culturally appropriate discipline in some cases. Our own cultural bias may tell us something is wrong when it’s not, and vice versa.

The easiest way to understand the difference between child abuse and discipline is to take mandated reporter training. Training helps supporters of families, child safety advocates, and those legally required to report abuse to better recognize the signs of abuse and neglect.

When you take mandated reporter training, it can help you perform your duty better and help ease the uncertainty or discomfort that often accompanies making a report.

While learning the details of child abuse is never a comfortable topic, training can help you know when it’s appropriate to step in. Your action just might save a life.

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