What happens when discipline goes awry?

Sometimes child discipline goes awry
and a small child ends up in the morgue.

By Kathy Lynn

Dr. Charles Ferguson, an eminent pediatrician from Winnipeg and one of Canada’s leading child-abuse experts, used to say to me that all too often children end up in the hospital because of “discipline gone awry.” The most horrific cases end up in the morgue.

The body of toddler Anthony Joseph Raine, found in a snowbank near a church in Edmonton recently, is just such a case. He was dead when he was found, and his body was covered in bruises. His father and the father’s girlfriend have been charged with second-degree murder.

In Canada we have a law which permits assaults on children, our most vulnerable citizens, up to the point where that assault crosses an ill-defined and highly subjective line. In some cases as in the case of young Anthony, it ends in death.

Section 43 of our Criminal Code says:

Every schoolteacher, parent or person standing in the place of a parent is justified in using force by way of correction toward a pupil or child, as the case may be, who is under his care, if the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances.

This section of the Criminal Code is duplicitous in that it not only instructs the perpetrators of violence against children on just how violent they can be, it then offers them a defense when they do so. Violence against children should be against the law, not defined by it.

I lead an organization called Corinne’s Quest which is dedicated to the repeal of Section 43 of the Criminal Code because it is barbaric, it denies our children the basic human right to safety and security the rest of us enjoy, and it is based on some neanderthal notion from our distant past that says hitting a child is a responsible way of teaching them right from wrong.

Thirteen years ago the constitutionality of Section 43 was challenged in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, then through the Ontario Court of Appeal and finally on to the Supreme Court of Canada. Astonishingly, the Supreme Court found that beating a child did not infringe his/her human rights, if the beating was done in just the right way. The court’s split decision resulted in a judicial narrowing of the nature of the beatings Canadian children can now legally receive.

The Court set out a series of judicial limitations to assist in the interpretation of the justifiable or so-called “reasonable” limits of corporal punishment. Those judicial limitations (which again don’t appear in the Criminal Code) are as follows:

  • Only parents may use reasonable force, and solely for purposes of correction;
  • Teachers may use reasonable force only to remove a child from a classroom or secure compliance with instructions, but not merely as corporal punishment;
  • Corporal punishment cannot be administered to children under two or teenagers;
  • The use of force on children of any age incapable of learning from [it] because of

disability or some other contextual factor is not protected;

  • Discipline using objects or blows or slaps to the head is unreasonable;
  • Degrading, inhuman or harmful conduct is not protected, including conduct that raises a reasonable prospect of harm;
  • Only minor corrective force of a transitory and trifling nature may be used;
  • The physical punishment must be corrective, which rules out conduct stemming from the caregiver’s frustration, loss of temper or abusive personality;
  • The gravity of the precipitating event is not relevant; and
  • The question of what is “reasonable under the circumstances requires an objective test and “must be considered in context and in light of all the circumstances of the case.”

These are now the court-ordered rules on how you can legally beat children in Canada. On the second birthday of her twins, my daughter wryly observed to me that under Canadian law they were now old enough to be beaten.

Dr. Fergusson’s observation about discipline gone awry makes the point. Invariably, parents who strike their children says it is for purposes of discipline, and it may well be. The point is, it is absolutely the wrong way to discipline children. We cannot give parents carte blanche to whack their children and then act surprised when they go too far and the child is physically hurt or killed.

There are 52 countries around the world who have banned all physical punishment of children. Why don’t we join them? After all, we have banned executions and physical punishments in prisons. What if we decided to give children the same human rights as all other citizens and ban all legal assault no matter what the age of the child?

It’s time. This is not a big step.  Most Canadians today agree that it’s time to repeal S43 of the Criminal Code. It’s time to end the family violence caused by the right to assault children. It’s easy. Repeal S43 of the Code and at the same time implement the 6th Call to Action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

May, 2017