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.