Is spanking child abuse? Fresno Assemblyman Arambula’s arrest opens debate

Is it ever OK to spank your child? And is it harmful?

The arrest of Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula on misdemeanor allegations that he physically abused his 7-year-old daughter has brought those age-old questions to the forefront.

Arambula, who has yet to be charged, claims any actions by him only went as far as spanking his child as a form of discipline after she had acted out before bedtime. In contrast, Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer has said the injury the child suffered was not on her buttocks, which leads to questions about Arambula’s story.

Although the level of harm children suffer from infrequent and mild spanking is still debatable, most experts say that form of punishment should be avoided completely.

The act of spanking a child is not illegal under California law, unless a person “willfully” inflicts “cruel or inhumane corporal punishment or an injury resulting in a traumatic condition.” Under state law, a parent can also face legal troubles if they “willfully” cause a child to suffer, inflict “physical pain” or “mental suffering.”

Allan Hedberg, a clinical psychologist in Fresno, said spanking a child is not appropriate because there are many discipline alternatives, such as time out or engaging a child in a task or work assignment that has a teaching component to improve his or her behavior.

“We would put (spanking) as an extremely last resort,” he said. That would only be acceptable under “extreme circumstances,” he said, where the child is being endangered because of his disobedience or poor judgment, and as a parent, you have to deal “with an immediate situation.”

However, other experts say spanking should be fully avoided by parents because research has shown it’s detrimental for the child, and absolutely not recommended under any circumstances.

Kathleen Dyer, professor and chair of Fresno State’s Department of Child and Family Science, said spanking is a hot-button topic, but there’s a strong scientific consensus that spanking is detrimental for the child’s development.

“We are scientists and we critically analyze evidence,” said Dyer (no relation to Chief Jerry Dyer). “One of the things we know is that spanking is worse when it’s more frequent and harsher.”

However, she said there’s disagreement on whether infrequent or mild spanking can be harmful for a child. “Spanking that causes an injury is kind of by definition no longer mild,” she said.

A mark resulting from spanking, experts say, could be considered an injury. While certain aspects of child discipline are debatable, experts agree the evidence overwhelmingly show spanking doesn’t yield positive results in improving the child’s behavior.

Rhett Billen, professor at Fresno State’s Department of Child and Family Science, said there’s nothing spanking can accomplish that can’t be done through other forms of discipline.

“There’s a lot of evidence that spanking has harmful effects on children,” he said. For example it can result in aggressive behavior in children with others and it can damage the parent-child relationship.

People need to come to terms that spanking is a use of “physical force and contact with a child,” he said.

Billen believes non-violent punishment has its place as effective discipline, such as time out or taking away a toy. “Those forms of dealing with children’s misbehavior can be effective,” he said.

There are even differing opinions on punishment itself as a parental tool. “There are those who believe that we shouldn’t use any punishment whatsoever,” Billen said, adding that before parents decide to use punishment, they should think of what they can teach their children to be responsible for their behavior.

Arambula Mugshot
Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula was arrested Monday and charged with willful cruelty to a child, a misdemeanor. Fresno Police Department

Disciplinary alternatives for parents

Arambula’s three girls — ages 3, 6, and 7 — were removed from his home by Child Protective Services on Monday, and placed in the care of the children’s grandparents. The girls were able to return home on Wednesday, and the family has agreed to attend family counseling.

Fresno County Assistant District Attorney Steve Wright would not comment on how many spanking cases the office has prosecuted, how common they are referred to the office, and what percentage of those referred to the office are pursued for charges.

Jordan Scott, spokesman for Fresno County, would not say how many spanking cases are investigated by Child Protective Services and referred to law enforcement for investigation. He also wouldn’t say how many children are removed from their parents’ home due to spanking.

Gerald Mallon, professor at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College at the City University of New York, and executive director at the National Center for Child Welfare Excellence, said children should never be removed from their parents’ home, unless there’s an “imminent risk for danger.”

“Spanking would not necessarily constitute imminent risk,” he said.

Punishment is always up to the parents, he said, and corporal parental disciplinary action is legal in most states. “A whack on the behind, one time, it that abuse? Probably not,” Mallon said. However, he added, it could open the door for potential risk if it’s frequent and aggressive.

In 2016, 76 percent of men and 66 percent of women, aged 18-65, were in favor of spanking a child sometimes, according to a study in

Claire Lerner, a licensed clinical social worker and child development specialist, said a critical piece of disciplining children is not shaming the parents for their actions, but rather giving them the opportunity to learn about alternatives.

“Our approach needs to be one that engages parents and doesn’t shut them down through shaming,” she said.

Lerner said spanking is a “very tough issue” because many parents today were spanked during childhood. But she said no parent really wants to spank their child.

Parents need to understand that their children’s behavior isn’t malicious, they just need teaching and guidance, Lerner said. Parents should always start by addressing the child’s emotion and remain calm.

“We get in the most trouble when we are triggered and reactive,” she said. “The number one step is to get out of reactive mode. When we are reactive, we rarely make good decisions.”

Yesenia Amaro: 559-441-6144, @YeseniaAmaro
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