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Bountiful man wins Utah Supreme Court fight over his child abuse conviction for spanking

By Mark Shenefelt standard-Examiner - | Apr 9, 2021

SALT LAKE CITY — Can a Utah parent spank a child, leaving a hand-shaped buttock bruise still visible two days later, and not be found guilty of child abuse?

The Utah Supreme Court said yes in a ruling Thursday, overturning the conviction of a Bountiful man who spanked his 4-year-old son after a series of epic tantrums.

Justices ruled that lower courts incorrectly determined Nathan Baize’s bruising spanking of the boy was not “reasonable discipline” as allowed under state law.

Laurieann Thorpe, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Utah, said Friday the ruling gives her pause.

“Just as a general rule, we have been teaching about child abuse that spanking isn’t illegal, but if a mark is left, that is child abuse,” Thorpe said. “This could potentially change how we talk about that.”

She said her group is opposed to spanking, “really for the reason that it doesn’t work. It doesn’t accomplish what parents hope it will. In fact, it has real negative outcomes for kids.”

Second District Judge Glen R. Dawson convicted Baize, now 36, in a bench trial on Feb. 10, 2017. The Bountiful City prosecutor had charged Baize with class C misdemeanor child abuse with criminal negligence. The Utah Court of Appeals upheld the conviction and Baize appealed to the Supreme Court.

The court record said Baize had been trying for hours to calm his son. During the temper tantrums, the boy kicked Baize and hit him in the face and kicked and punched his grandmother. Baize told a police detective spanking was “the last resort.”

Evidence at trial showed Baize spanked his son with enough force to leave bruises in the shape of a handprint.

In his appeal, Baize’s attorneys argued the lower courts misapplied the law by failing to properly consider whether the spanking could be construed as “reasonable discipline” by a parent, which is exempted from prosecution in certain circumstances.

Baize’s attorneys asserted that the Court of Appeals ruling against him in 2019 “essentially establishes a rule that any spanking by a parent that leaves a bruise” on the child constitutes “child abuse under the statute.”

The Supreme Court said the Court of Appeals correctly recognized that although a parent “may be convicted of child abuse when he causes physical injury to a child, including bruising,” the law also provides parents with a defense if the injury was not “serious” and “the conduct in question constituted reasonable discipline.”

Justices said the Court of Appeals erred in determining it was “clear from the record” that Dawson correctly analyzed the “reasonable discipline” provisions.

Therefore, the court ordered the case be sent back so the district court can enter findings about whether Baize’s action was reasonable discipline.

“Physical injury” is defined by the law as, among other things, “a bruise or other contusion of the skin (or) a minor laceration or abrasion.”

Baize’s attorney said during the bench trial that spanking “was the only tool Baize had left as a parent after exhausting other options.” It was done in a “controlled manner” and was “not done out of anger,” the attorney said.

The boy’s mother noticed the bruising the next day after she picked him up from the father. She contacted the Utah Division of Child and Family Services, which advised her to call police.

The city prosecutor contended, however, “When you spank a child to the point where there is physical injury … you come to a class C misdemeanor child abuse.”

The city prosecutor said at trial, “It’s a matter of degree.” The bruising spanking by Baize, the prosecutor argued, was “just stepping over the line of the criminal code instead of parenting.”

Dawson ruled the spanking “was just too hard,” and therefore the “discipline was a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exercise.”

But the high court ruled that when a defendant has presented sufficient evidence to put the affirmative defense of “reasonable discipline” at issue, the prosecution must also disprove that defense beyond a reasonable doubt. That did not happen in the bench trial.

Prevent Child Abuse Utah advocates “painless parenting,” Thorpe said, by trying to equip parents to discipline in a teaching way so both parent and child “have a positive experience in how to handle emotions.”

“Some of the things we see with spanking, it’s so counter to the message we’re trying to give,” Thorpe said. “How do you teach someone not to hit by hitting?”

She said spanking a child “creates a situation where the people they trust aren’t going to be the ones who can provide comfort when they’re in an emotionally heightened state.”

Prevent Child Abuse Utah recommends various programs for helping parents handle child development and discipline, including:

Parents as Teachers

Family Support Center of Ogden

Crisis nurseries

“It’s perfectly OK for parents to put themselves in a time out,” said Laurieann Thorpe, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Utah.

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