What is Child Abuse?

“Child Abuse” under Florida Statutes § 827.03(b) is: 

  1. Intentional infliction of physical or mental injury upon a child. 
  2. An intentional act that could reasonably be expected to result in physical or mental injury to a child; or
  3. Active encouragement of any person to commit an act that results or could reasonably be expected to result in physical or mental injury to a child. 

The legislature has defined the term “Abuse” twice in the statutes. In Florida Statutes § 984.03, in relation to the chapter regarding Children and Families in Need of Services, “Abuse” is defined as “any willful act that results in any physical, mental, or sexual injury that causes or is likely to cause the child’s mental, physical, or emotional health to be significantly impaired. Corporal discipline of a child by a parent or guardian for disciplinary purposes does not in itself constitute abuse when it does not result in harm to the child as defined in § 39.01.” 

The referenced section, § 39.01 relates to the General Provisions for Proceedings relating to Children and is where the second definition of “Abuse” can be found. This definition also creates the exception for corporal discipline. This is discussed below. The definition of “harm” pointed to in § 984.03 says that a few factors must be considered in evaluating the injury, including the age of the child, any prior history of injuries, the location of the injury on the body, the multiplicity of the injury, and the type of trauma inflicted. It also gives examples of the types of injuries, including fractures, sprains, dislocations, drowning, burns, etc. Caselaw has also pointed out that the level of injury contemplated by the statute requires something more than “significant welts or bruises.” There have been cases where the court said the actions did not constitute child abuse. Case law also says that physical injury in this context “requires more than mild or passing discomfort.” 

What is Parental Affirmative Defense?

The jury instruction for Child Abuse states “It is not a crime for [a parent][a person acting in place of a parent] of a child to impose reasonable physical discipline on a child for misbehavior under the circumstances even though physical injury resulted from the discipline.” 

This means that a parent or someone acting in place of a parent (like a teacher or other caretaker) does not commit a crime if the physical discipline is considered “reasonable.” Unfortunately, what is considered reasonable is not defined. Case law does provide some guidance. Basically, the court should look at whether the manner of discipline is reasonable and appropriate and the level of injury based on the definitions above. 

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