Ask A JAG: Child discipline on-post, in public

Q: I sometimes see service members physically disciplining their children in public areas on base and it makes me uncomfortable.  Where is the line between acceptable parental discipline and abuse? If I see conduct that is abusive, what should I do?

A: A child’s discipline is first and foremost a parental responsibility. However, parents do not have an unlimited amount of discretion in disciplining an unruly child.

Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, parents are allowed to physically discipline their children, as long as certain conditions are met. These conditions are identified in U.S. v. Brown, a U.S. Army Court of Military Review case, which allows physical contact for disciplinary purposes when: (1) the action is taken for a parental purpose; (2) the action is to safeguard or promote the welfare of the child; and (3) a reasonable degree of force is utilized.

Since issuing Brown, the Court has clarified the scope of these three prongs. To determine whether a parent’s conduct constitutes a UCMJ violation, the Court examines the age of the child, with what the parent struck the child, and whether the parent used an amount of force known to create a substantial risk to the child.

For example, the Court has found that excessively squeezing the cheeks of a three-year-old, followed by striking the child in the face with a fist, is not a reasonable degree of force. The Court has also found that binding a twelve-year-old child’s hands and feet and placing a plastic bag over the child’s head was beyond the reasonable amount of force that a parent could use to discipline their child.

On the other side of the spectrum, military courts have consistently allowed parents to discipline their children by spanking them with either their open hand or a belt (so long as any hard belt buckle or clasp has been removed and the spanking causes no evidence of serious injuries). In the middle of these instances is a large grey area in which a parent’s conduct may or may not be permissible under the UCMJ.

Community members are not encouraged to spy on one another; however, they are encouraged to report any actions that they suspect go beyond allowable physical disciplining into child abuse to Stuttgart Social Work Services or to the military police.

All installation law enforcement personnel, including social workers, school personnel, Family Advocacy Program and Child Youth and School Services personnel, psychologists, and medical personnel are required to report any potentially abusive conduct they witness.

This column is not intended as individual or specific legal advice. If you have specific issues or concerns, you should consult Stuttgart Law Center’s judge advocate.