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Utah Law - Child Abuse and Spanking

Is spanking considered to be child abuse under Utah criminal law?

Child abuse can come in many forms, and under different circumstances may carry misdemeanor or felony penalties. Under Utah’s child abuse statute, physical abuse is defined as any "nonaccidental harm of a child" or "threatened harm of a child” and can include striking, kicking, burning, biting, or any action that can result in physical harm as well as circumstances that threaten a child with harm or create a risk of harm to the child’s health or welfare. In the case of Provo City v. Cannon (1999), the Utah Court of Appeals found that dangling a child over the railing of a balcony constituted child abuse even though there was no actual injury to the child. But more recently, in the case of B.T. and S.T. v. State of Utah (2017), the Utah Supreme Court reversed a juvenile court’s determination that “hitting a child with a belt or strap or other object” was abuse, even though there was no actual injury to the child.

These two cases share some striking similarities, and the juvenile court’s decision seems in many ways to be in line with the previous Court of Appeals decision. But there are several important distinctions that allowed the Supreme Court to reach a seemingly opposite conclusion without overruling the Court of Appeals’ prior decision in Provo City v. Cannon.

The issue before both of the appellate courts was whether or not the trial or juvenile courts had erred in determining if the facts of each case constituted abuse under Utah’s child abuse statute and its definitions. The defendant in Provo City v Cannon, as observed by several witnesses, held a nine-month old baby over the railing of his third-floor apartment balcony. The defendant in Cannon was convicted in a trial court of child abuse. In the case of B.T. and S.T. v. State of Utah the parents stipulated to the factual allegations that they had used a rhinestone studded belt to spank their children. The juvenile court ruled that these spankings constituted child abuse.

The defendants in both Cannon and in B.T. and S.T. appealed, arguing that the state provided no evidence showing the children had actually suffered any physical injury or harm.  And, they contend that without any evidence that the children had actually suffered physical injury or harm, the trial and juvenile courts had erred in ruling that their conduct constituted abuse.

The defendant in Provo City v Cannon, relied on the plain meaning of “physical injury” when he made his argument that the state presented no evidence the child suffered physical injury. The concept of “physical injury” as the term is ordinarily used requires that there be some physical impact. The defendant in Cannon contended that holding the child over the balcony railing did not cause a physical impact on the child. The Court of Appeals, however, addressed the definition of “physical injury” found in Utah code 76-5-109 as “an injury to or condition of a child which impairs the physical condition of the child,” that can include bruises, contusions, lacerations, abrasions, failure to thrive, malnutrition and “any other condition which imperils the child’s health or welfare and which in not a serious physical injury as defined in subsection 1(d).” The court did not interpret the statute as requiring any physical impact, instead pointing to term “imperil” as meaning “to expose to the chance of danger.”  The court held that when the defendant, for whatever reason, held the nine-month old child over the railing of his balcony, the risk of harm was great enough to support a determination that he had “exposed the child to the chance of injury” or “imperiled” the child’s health and welfare. Thus, the Utah Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s determination that dangling a child over a balcony railing did support a conviction of child abuse.

Unlike Cannon, the Utah Supreme court in the case of B.T. and S.T. v. State of Utah agreed with the parents’ argument that “spanking a child with a belt, without any additional proof of harm” does not constitute abuse under Utah law. It could be tempting to assume that the parents in this case did more than lightly pat their children with a belt. But the Supreme Court held that without any evidence as to the severity or effects of the spankings or the way in which the rhinestone belt was used, such a finding would be based only on speculation. Instead, it appears that the juvenile court had relied on a “per se” rule that would have established that any time a child is struck with an object they are harmed. The Supreme Court rejected this per se rule. noting that such a rule would be problematic because it “has the potential to sweep non-abusive behavior into its net.” There are many ways a parent might strike a child that would not cause harm and should not be considered to be child abuse - like having a pillow fight, throwing rolled up socks, or playing with a foam sword or pool noodle. The Supreme Court points out that the state likely could have proven harm without much additional evidence. But because additional evidence was not presented by the State, it was unclear how hard the parents hit the children, or if the children suffered any pain, or were otherwise injured or harmed physically or emotionally by the spankings. Thus, without evidence of harm, the facts of this case did not support a finding of child abuse under Utah law.

While these two appellate cases raised similar arguments, the facts and evidence presented in each case supported seemingly opposite conclusions.  The act of dangling a child over a third-floor balcony railing is sufficient to show that a child’s health and welfare has been imperiled or threatened. On the other hand, the act of spanking a child with a belt is not, by itself, enough to constitute child abuse. Proof that the spankings caused harm or injury - either physical or emotional, is required to support a conviction of child abuse.  

Choosing a Utah Criminal Defense Attorney

Utah Criminal Defense LawyerChild abuse penalties in Utah can be severe. If you are facing criminal prosecution for a misdemeanor or felony offense in Utah, choosing the right criminal attorney is critical. With experience defending cases including child abuse homicide and other felony and misdemeanor child abuse allegations, we have the skill, knowledge, and tenacity needed to help you get the results you need.

We also work with clients who have been previously convicted, helping them clear their records through processes of expungement, 402 reduction, and pardon.

Contact us today to see how the right criminal defense attorney can help you.

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Serving Salt Lake, Davis, Weber, Utah, Cache, Tooele, Summit, Box Elder, and Wasatch Counties, and all of Utah.

Attorney Stephen Howard practices as part of the Canyons Law Group, LLC and Stephen W. Howard, PC.

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560 South 300 East, Suite 200, Salt Lake City, UT 84111
952 S. Main St., Suite A, Layton, UT 84041

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In Salt Lake City, call 801-449-1409.
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