Trying to agree on the line between discipline and abuse

March 04, 2001|By Michael Olesker

WHEN DAWN Jones discovered that her 14-year-old son had been caught shoplifting, she did what more than a few parents would do: She lost her composure, and then she took a swipe at him. When Anne Arundel County prosecutors discovered this, they did what some parents might find unsettling: They indicted her on a charge of child abuse.

And, last week, a Circuit Court jury took all of 15 minutes to say: Can we please get some sense of distinction between child abuse and parental discipline?

Jones, 32, is a Baltimore probation officer. Before that, she was a correctional officer for the Division of Correction. On its face, this does not mean that she would not strike a child, but she works in law enforcement and was appalled when she discovered that her son had been stopped by a security guard at Macy's in Marley Station and charged with shoplifting a $29 hat.

Her son claimed he did not steal the hat - that someone outside the store had given it to him. But he could not explain why he had stuffed the hat down the front of his pants.

Dawn Jones had been wandering through the mall that day trying to find her son. She looked for more than an hour. She was getting increasingly worried. Then she heard that a teen-ager had been detained at Macy's. This put a chill through Jones because her son had been stopped for another crime only a week earlier - but was let go when he promised to be good.

As Jones marched her son through the store and he offered flimsy denials of his crime, she lost her composure. This can be seen on a Macy's videotape of the incident, although some details are photographically fuzzy. She clearly takes a few swipes, but might not have connected. Jones says she landed one slap on her son's face; her son agrees.

But Anne Arundel County prosecutor Frank Ragione believed they were punches. After watching the video, he said two swings landed on the teen's face and one in his stomach. He took the case to a grand jury, which indicted Jones.

"A terrible thing to do," says Jones' attorney, Daniel Sussman. "What's clear from the tape is that she puts her finger in his face, tugs at him, and then takes a swipe at him. The kid says she slapped him one time. There were no bruises. He didn't fall down. He walked away from his mother, and she walked away to cool off."

Ragione's view is different.

"They weren't slaps, they were punches," he says. "The law says you have parental privilege to do reasonable chastisement. I don't know who thinks it's reasonable to punch a kid in the face."

"Bull----," says Sussman. "The tape is so unclear. You see her grabbing his arm, almost like they're dancing. And then she takes a swipe at him. It was a slap. There was one eyewitness, a 16-year-old girl, and she testified that it was a slap. And the son said the same thing."

"That's what it was," Jones said Friday morning, the day after her trial. "I said to my son, `Why did you do it?' He was already in trouble. He kept saying, `I didn't do it.' I said, `Why are you lying?' He said he wasn't lying, when I knew he was. So I slapped him."

Anne Arundel County police Officer R. T. Dahle, on the scene to write up charges against Jones' son, arrested her.

"It was humiliating," Jones said. "I kept telling them, `He's my responsibility, and he lied.' I kept saying, `You're making a big mistake.' My son was crying. He said, `My mother didn't do anything.' They wouldn't listen."

Then things got worse. Jones is a single mother. Appearing before a county bail commissioner, she was ordered not to have any contact with her son. She was not even to talk to him. Her son had to move in with an aunt.

Jones' duties at work were curtailed - she could not work with juvenile offenders while her case was pending - and her name was placed on a list, kept by the state, of alleged child abusers.

That list, described in an article in The Sun last week, includes the names of about 100,000 people - many of whom have never been criminally charged but were the subject of complaints filed by suspicious neighbors, school officials or hospital personnel.

Some state officials call it a valuable tool against child abuse - but opponents call it a violation of privacy rights.

"You get put on the list," says Sussman, "without anybody talking to her or the kid. If she goes for a new job, she's on that list. Without even waiting for a trial."

When Jones' trial finally arrived last week in Anne Arundel Circuit Court, charges were reduced from child abuse to battery. When prosecutor Ragione asked Jones whether her son had been in any previous trouble, she said he'd been stopped the previous week for an alleged crime, but was let go.

Ragione asked Jones what she had done with him after the first incident. She said, "I talked to him." Ragione asked why she hit him after the second incident, instead of talking to him again.

"Ever since I hit him," Jones said, "he hasn't gotten in any more trouble." (Her son's shoplifting case has not yet come to trial.)

A jury deliberated the case against Dawn Jones for about 15 minutes and then found her not guilty.

She and her son hugged each other in the courtroom.

"Now," says Sussman, "we have to file an appeal to get her off that list of child abusers."

"Now," says Jones, "I have to find some other mall to do my shopping."

Now the rest of us will continue to wonder: Where, precisely, is the line drawn between child abuse - and a parent showing a child, in no uncertain terms, that some kinds of behavior will not be tolerated?

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