Letter to Governor Kate Brown of Oregon

216 NW 3rd Avenue #235
Portland, Oregon  97209
(503) 382-9146

February 23, 2016

The Honorable Kate Brown
Governor of Oregon
State Capitol Building
900 Court Street, 160
Salem, Oregon  97301

Dear Governor Brown,

As you surely know from your work in the field of youth law and youth rights, maltreatment of young people by adults is a deep and serious problem. In Oregon, a full 20% of respondents to a question about childhood physical abuse in a CDC telephone survey* reported experiencing physical abuse as children. Clearly, intelligent, preventive approaches are needed. And yet one major contributor to child maltreatment receives little attention: physical punishment of children.

There is growing international consensus that physical punishment and other humiliating treatment breaches the human rights of children. The World Health Organization and the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect** point to social norms that support the use of corporal punishment and diminish the status of the child relative to the parent as factors contributing to child maltreatment. When physical punishment of children is viewed as a private family matter, children are put in the same position that women were a century ago, when it was legal for men to hit their wives. The defense of "reasonable discipline" in Oregon's Juvenile Code therefore introduces confusion and denies minor children equal protection under the law.

The Oregon Department of Human Services currently advises that spanking is not abuse. While legally correct, the distinction is arbitrary. Elizabeth Gershoff, family sciences professor at the University of Texas, writes that as many as two thirds of verified physical abuse cases in the U.S. begin as disciplinary punishment. Joan Durrant at the University of Manitoba points out that there is no clear distinction between punishment and abuse in terms of the long-term effects on children, according to decades of research. Likewise, the American Psychological Association stresses the importance of not hitting children for the sake of raising children to resist violence.

A multi-pronged approach by the state of Oregon to reducing violence against children could entail: making factsheets available to pediatricians and their patients on the observed dangers of physical punishment through the Oregon Health Authority; revising DHS literature to eliminate the misleading, if well-intentioned, distinction between spanking and abuse; and repealing the "reasonable discipline" defense, as Canada's government has similarly pledged to do regarding section 43 of the Criminal Code. A November 2015 report backed by several child welfare agencies in Scotland, including the NSPCC, Barnardo's, and the Children and Young People's Commissioner, found that such legal change does not result in more prosecution of parents, but rather facilitates a change in cultural attitudes toward violence against children.

Daniel Fuller

* Oregon Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System Survey (BRFSS), 2011 & 2013
** World Health Organization and International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, Preventing child maltreatment: a guide to taking action and generating evidence, 2006.

Letter to State Senator Ginny Burdick (Oregon Senate District 18)

March 30, 2015

Dear Senator Burdick,

Last month, a man in Georgia was convicted of murder for forcing a 12-year-old boy to stand for hours in the midday sun holding heavy cans of paint until he collapsed, and then kicking the boy several times in the head.  His explanation was that the child had been disobedient.  The same week, a woman in Florida sent her child to school covered in bruises and wearing a shirt which proclaimed this beating a punishment for poor grades.  Sadly, official reports expose only a fraction of child abuse cases.  I envision a future in which such actions are not just illegal, but unthinkable: a future in which every child’s freedom from violence is guaranteed.  I believe that extending to children the basic human rights that most adults take for granted is an essential step toward creating such a future.

For decades there has been mounting evidence (outlined by Joan Durrant at the University of Manitoba and Elizabeth Gershoff at the University of Texas, among others) that physically punishing children leads to mental illnesses, addiction, and later crimes such as domestic assaults.  Murray Straus at the University of New Hampshire argues that much of the violence plaguing our society can be directly traced to childhood spanking and slapping.  And according to a 2010 report by Dr. Gershoff, as many as two thirds of documented cases of child physical abuse begin “as acts of corporal punishment meant to correct a child’s behavior”.  But do we really need such evidence to show us the absurdity of giving children less legal protection from hitting than adults?  We don’t require proof that hitting women or elderly people is harmful in order to know that it is wrong and should be illegal.  Why should children be the exception?  They are not property, but human beings.  Why should we count their need for basic human dignity as less than our own?

I picture a world in which every child grows up feeling deep down that they belong no matter what.  I believe that the adults those children become will have no need to commit acts of violence in order to feel powerful, respected, and above all, safe.  I ask you to imagine how our state, our country, and our world might look in just twenty years if we stopped hitting all children today.  The purpose of a law banning corporal punishment and other humiliating and degrading treatment would not be to criminalize parents, but rather to affirm every child’s right to bodily integrity and the respect of their caregivers.  Forty-six countries as of March 2015 have already enacted similar laws, and 194 nations have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Many Americans would call this an attack on parents’ freedom to raise their children as they see fit.  But in the end, whose freedom to live is truly the most important?


Daniel Fuller
Portland, Oregon

Letter to State Rep. Jennifer Williamson (Oregon Legislative District 36)

February 23, 2015

Dear Ms. Williamson,

I believe that we can put an end to societal injustice by addressing its root causes.  I believe that children who experience unconditional respect, kindness, and compassion will grow up to create a society built on these qualities.  I believe that punishing children's bodies goes against the laws of nature, and that not until every child is legally protected from all forms of physical and mental violence can we hope to live in a just world.  I believe that the real reason parents spank is that they dare not feel their own childhood suffering.  But I believe that we can live in a world in which all children grow up feeling secure in the knowledge that they are wanted just as they are, and no longer have to suffer simply for being human.

Let us imagine what it would be like to be a small, vulnerable child, and to suddenly have those people whom we most love and trust turn and use their superior strength to subdue and attack us.  How desperately must we have to stifle our justified fear, outrage, and despair, in order not to lose the hope that we will be loved and protected?  How could we feel safe knowing that we could be smacked, pushed, pulled, or pinched at any moment?  Chronic stress in childhood erodes one's ability to trust and empathize with others, which can later lead to crime, addiction, and illness, as well as fueling the intergenerational cycle of violence and neglect.  Some children manage to find a "helping witness" in the person of a sympathetic adult; such a person can help a child to preserve their integrity by showing them that they are not alone with their feelings.  But not all children are so lucky.  History's worst tyrants, such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, all had this in common: lacking such a witness, they were mercilessly beaten in childhood.

To those who claim, "I was spanked and I turned out fine", I would say that they don't know how much happier and healthier they might have turned out had their parents patiently talked to them, listened to them, and respected their developmental needs instead of using violent physical "correction".  Dr. Bruce D. Perry has observed that the brain is not fully formed at birth; a child's experiences in the first years of life profoundly influence how the brain becomes "wired".  I would ask: What kind of future minds are we creating by allowing parents to smack their children today?  The US is one of only three nations not to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.  I believe that a law affirming every child's right to freedom from physical punishment and humiliation is an essential step on the path toward creating a more sane and responsible society.


Daniel Fuller
Portland, Oregon