The Home School Court Report
Vol. XXV
No. 5
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September/October
2009

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MASSACHUSETTS

Bruises Equal DCF Intervention Regardless of Cause

Two recent Massachusetts cases demonstrate that state child welfare officials and mandatory child welfare reporters (such as doctors, counselors, and teachers) may consider even minor bruises on children signs of possible abuse or neglect.

In the first case, the Joneses (name changed to protect privacy) brought their child to their family pediatrician because they were concerned about his frequent “clumsy episodes,” including a fall down some stairs that resulted in bruises. The doctor told Mrs. Jones that the child had “one bruise too many” and reported the family to the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF). This doctor also disclosed other private health information about the family that had nothing to do with the bruises. DCF investigated the incident and, even though the cause of the bruises was an accidental fall, and the family was innocent, DCF supported the allegation of neglect.

In the second case, the Dawkins family (name changed to protect privacy) administered reasonable physical discipline to their two young boys. When Mrs. Dawkins brought her children to their pediatrician for a routine checkup, the doctor noticed faint bruising on one of the boy’s legs and pressed Mrs. Dawkins for the cause. Mrs. Dawkins admitted that it was the result of a recent spanking. Because any bruising from physical discipline is considered abuse by DCF, the pediatrician called DCF, who immediately came to the office to interrogate Mrs. Dawkins and her son. After being threatened with possible arrest if she left the office, Mrs. Dawkins finally agreed to sign a “safety contract,” scrawled by the DCF employee on a scrap of paper, in which Mrs. Dawkins promised not to spank her children with an object.

Mrs. Dawkins contacted Home School Legal Defense Association Staff Attorney Michael Donnelly, who attempted to contact the social worker in this case to arrange for an amicable resolution that protected the family’s privacy and constitutional rights, but addressed the concerns raised by DCF. When Mrs. Dawkins asked the DCF workers to contact Donnelly, they accused Mrs. Dawkins of being uncooperative. The DCF workers went to the local family court, got a court order, and seized the children. Donnelly arranged to have the children returned, but the court issued a petition requiring the family to have ongoing interaction with DCF and other court-appointed “investigators” until the case is closed.

In Massachusetts, as in all of the United States, reasonable physical discipline is a legal and legitimate method of child discipline. A leading case on the issue of spanking is Cobble v. Commissioner, in which the Supreme Judicial Court held that using a belt to occasionally administer spankings, which left only temporary red marks and caused moderate pain to the child, was not abuse. Other appeals court cases have held that, in cases where actual bruising occurs, even faint bruising may be considered evidence of possible abuse by DCF. Of course, if adopted, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child could be interpreted to ban all forms of physical discipline for any reason.

These cases illustrate that current child protection laws in Massachusetts create a system of reporting that can be easily abused. No one disputes the importance of protecting children and encouraging the reporting of obvious cases of abuse. However, reporters and child welfare officials too often overreact or over-report, subjecting families to traumatic and often unnecessary government intrusion. HSLDA hopes that parents will be better informed to make the best decisions for their children by being aware of this information.

HSLDA encourages parents to use judgment in making decisions regarding discipline and doctor visits. If a child has medical issues that require immediate attention, we encourage parents to promptly obtain that attention and care. However, parents should be aware of any bruises on their children and should be prepared to be asked about the cause of the injury by medical and possibly social services personnel. Being prepared will enable you to respond calmly rather than defensively or with anger. Members with questions about this are encouraged to contact HSLDA’s legal department.

— by Michael P. Donnelly