Parents' hell after choice to strap child

IAN STEWARD
Last updated 05:00 03/06/2012

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A  mum's "considered decision" to strap her son led to an assault conviction, and a judge told her that thinking about it first made it worse than if she'd done it in anger.

The woman and her partner, both South Island teachers, were convicted after they strapped their 8-year-old son, over his pyjamas, with a belt in January last year.

But after taking their case all the way to the Court of Appeal, they were discharged without conviction.

Anti-smacking law critics say the case is an example of good parents being criminalised, contrary to assurances from politicians when the law came in.

Named H and G in court papers to protect their son, the pair told the Sunday Star-Times the boy had a history of behavioural difficulties, had seen psychiatrists, and the family had approached Child Youth and Family.

When he was discovered for a second time doing "something that put another child's health at risk", they said it was the "straw that broke the camel's back".

"I felt like I had gone down all the right channels. He did it again. I thought what else can I do to try to get him to realise it's not acceptable behaviour?" H said.

She asked her partner to give the boy the strap that night. "We talked to our son so he knew why. We needed him to know it wasn't OK."

A CYF worker was told a few weeks later, and police were notified. They interviewed H, who was told it was "highly unlikely" the case would go to court. But police went to the school a few days later and she and her partner were charged that night.

H said they pleaded guilty and applied for discharges without conviction to avoid putting the boy through a trial.

Judge Tony Zohrab denied the applications, saying "the fact it was a considered decision to assault him" was an aggravating factor. They both lost their jobs because of the convictions, and the boy was sent to live with other family.

H said the decision was "backwards". "The judge almost said if you had done it in anger, it would have been better."

They appealed, and her partner got a discharge without conviction in the High Court, but her offending was deemed worse because she had told police she had used a wooden spoon on the boy in the past.

H then went to the Court of Appeal, where the judges said they had "considerable sympathy" for her.

Justices O'Regan, Arnold and Randerson said H was dealing with a child with identifiable behavioural problems, and an incident any parent would have found challenging to deal with.

"She had sought appropriate expert assistance with the child, and had utilised a range of non-physical measures to address behaviour.

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"While not condoning the use of physical violence for disciplinary purposes, the actions taken by G at H's request were at the lower end of the scale."

The court said the assault was "over clothing and involved, at most, one or two hits with a belt being used as a strap".

The judges ruled Zohrab had erred in "overstating the gravity of the offending", and the consequences – particularly losing their jobs – were out of proportion.

H said she was overjoyed at being discharged after "a year-and-a-half of hell".

She said when the anti-smacking law was introduced she thought it would stop people from abusing their children. "I didn't for a second think I would get criminalised."

Family First director Bob McCroskie said the case showed the law "coming home to roost".

"This mother has had her career damaged, lost income and faced legal fees, and it's caused irreparable damage to the family.

"She was honest, asked for help, went to professionals who never came running with assistance – but were quick to prosecute."

"The warning to all good parents from this is to be careful what they admit."

Police criminal investigations national manager Detective Superintendent Rod Drew said a review of smacking investigation figures showed discretion was being used.

"It's a matter of degree. Generally speaking, the use of a weapon to hit a child is unacceptable."

The law allowed reasonable force to be used, but "reasonable" was not defined.

- Sunday Star Times

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