By Joshua Albert
Typically, my Monday afternoons in Clark Park are supposed to be a pleasant experience. I blast Lil’ Wayne in my ears, read the latest copy from City Paper and Philadelphia Weekly, and nurse iced coffee from Green Line Cafe. It’s boring, but it does what I need it to do.
Yesterday was different though. I was about to learn just how little protection Pennsylvania law offers to children facing the wrath of their parents.
It began like this: A kid, screaming and running across the park with two other siblings, yelling “He’s gone get hit too” darts past me.
And then comes a man, belt in hand. Plodding. Methodical. Chillingly calm.
He catches up with the child and begins violently meting out punishment. Initially wanting to confront the man, I instead decide this wouldn’t be the best approach, namely out of fear of an altercation spinning out of control. People in the park watch, horrified. Some pull out their phones and call the police.
I do too. I wasn’t able to capture on video the man hitting his child with the belt. But he does. I counted at least six times. While awaiting law enforcement, we all just stand there, shocked.
After five minutes, police arrive. The officers talk with the man.
The man, who I later learn is the child’s legal guardian, is allowed to leave after some time. I’m incredulous and pissed off. One of the officers notices me recording video of their interaction with the man. The officer walks over to me, and I begin pressing him with questions about the limits of parental punishment. He eventually tells me that this sort of discipline is perfectly acceptable. Well, according to Pennsylvania law at least.
In PA, you’re allowed to discipline your kids as long as it’s not ‘excessive’.
In fact, parental corporal punishment like this is allowed in every state but Minnesota, according to The Center for Effective Discipline.
The police officer quite boorishly explains to me and another onlooker his own perspective on the matter. He did not know he was being recorded:
Technically the officer is correct. Unfortunately, as in this case, the line between parental discipline and child abuse is subject to an investigator’s biases and interpretation. I later describe the incident to Krista Kircanski, a clinical psychologist who works with abused children. She has quite a different take on the matter:
It would certainly be something a mandated reporter would at least contact their local child welfare reporting agency to consult about, before making a determination whether a formal report is warranted. Mandated reporters don’t determine abuse, they report suspected child abuse. It’s not our job to say what’s excessive or not.
Police, as well as psychologists, naturally fall under what is known as a “mandated reporter” category. This is a term basically meaning that if you’re a police officer, health professional, or school administrator, for example, you are required to report suspected abuse to a child protection agency so that the agency can investigate further and take appropriate action if necessary. In fact, under Pennsylvania law, anyone aged 18 and above is considered a mandated reporter.
Judging from my conversation with the officer, I’m not at all confident that he went back to the station and contacted child welfare personnel. In fact, I didn’t witness either officer even write down the guardian’s name.
I start talking to another bystander, named Kelly McGill, about what the twenty or so of us park dwellers had seen and were trying to process. When I tell her that the police officer said it was okay to hit a kid with a belt, park dweller Kelly McGill says in disgust:
He wasn’t just hitting his kids, he was beating the shit out of them.
As some studies, such as a 2010 project conducted by Tulane University, seem to indicate, corporal punishment – like the very public, and very disgusting incident I witnessed in Clark Park – might just be perpetuating an endless cycle of violence, passed down from generation to generation.
If you witness or otherwise suspect child abuse, call Child Line at 1.800.932.0313.