Legislature can help stop child abuse

March 06, 2010

As Maryland's leading child-abuse prevention organization, we at The Family Tree know that Senate Bill 689 will help protect Maryland's children from maltreatment. By providing clear guidance about how a parent may discipline his or her child, the bill both teaches parents appropriate behavior and protects children from dangerous abuse. The Family Tree wholeheartedly endorses Senate Bill 689 and applauds its co-sponsors, Sens. Jamie Raskin and Richard Madaleno.

Child abuse takes a tremendous toll in the United States. In 2007, the families of 1.86 million children were investigated -- and more than 1,500 children died -- as a result of maltreatment. Child abuse often has profound adverse effects on children's health and development. Maltreated children are more likely to suffer later from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, poor physical health and criminal activity. There is also a huge financial toll. In 2007, the annual cost of child abuse in the U.S. was over $100 billion, including more than $33 billion for direct costs like courts, foster care, law enforcement and health care, and $70 billion in long-term economic effects. In Maryland, it is estimated that we spend $2 billion each year.

Part of the problem in Maryland is a lack of clear laws telling parents what is appropriate parental discipline -- and what is dangerous and constitutes abuse. The Family Tree has counseled tens of thousands of families, including adults sent by courts in the wake of child abuse charges. Very often, these parents tell us, "I didn't know that I couldn't do that." Currently, no statute in Maryland defines legal corporal punishment. Instead, courts struggle to apply a freewheeling standard allowing "reasonable" parental discipline. Such a standard amounts to no guidance at all for parents, especially those who lack parenting skills and might strike their child in times of stress or anger.

Senate Bill 689, and its clear guidance as to what methods cannot be used when disciplining a child, is thus sorely needed. If an adult violates this law, the state would have a clear standard under which to evaluate and prosecute the case. The list of prohibited acts protects children by clearly defining acts of violence that will not be condoned. And perhaps most importantly, the bill would reduce child abuse by giving well-meaning parents a clear and understandable line to define where physical discipline ends and physical abuse begins.

For all these reasons, we urge the General Assembly to pass Senate Bill 689.

Patricia K. Cronin

The writer is executive director of The Family Tree.

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