Ellen Marrus on child discipline

Ellen MarrusThe viral video of Aransas County Court-at-Law Judge William Adams lashing his then 16-year-old daughter with a belt has evoked outrage in many viewers and sparked a national debate about when corporal punishment goes too far.

University of Houston Law Center Professor Ellen Marrus, director of the Center for Children, Law & Policy is an expert in the areas of children's rights, juvenile law, and clinical education. Marrus takes a few moments to analyze the controversial video and to discuss the parameters around child discipline and abuse. Just where that line is can be vague and is generally left to the interpretation of police officers, Child Protective Service workers, and prosecutors, Marrus said.

Q: What are your thoughts on the video of Judge William Adams lashing his daughter?

A: Although the judge called his actions discipline, what was on that video went past any form of child discipline that could be viewed as positive. It was clearly abuse. It was also disturbing that the mother, not only watched what was happening, but encouraged the “discipline.” I understand that Judge Adams cannot be criminally prosecuted because of the statute of limitations, and no civil child abuse action would be taken against him to protect the daughter in the video, but there are other considerations. First, should he be disciplined as a judge and forced to step down from the bench? Even if it is too late to take action against him, should he be judging the behavior of other parents towards their children? Also, it is my understanding that there is another child from the marriage, who is still a minor, for whom both parents are requesting custody. The video could be used to safeguard the other child.

Q: Why do you think the video has incited such outrage from the American public?

A: Child abuse usually occurs behind closed doors and is typically associated with poor parents who do not have much education. The video threw the abuse in the face of the public, and it is difficult to make excuses for an educated person who should have known better. As a society we don’t like to get involved in other people’s family business and believe strongly in family privacy. It is harder to condone such abuse when it stares you in the face.

Q: Texas law allows parents to use force to discipline their children, but when does disciplinary actions cross the line to become child abuse?

A: If the discipline leaves physical manifestations; i.e. bruises, broken bones, scarring; or the child demonstrates physical ailments such as stomach aches or headaches, it would rise to the level of abuse.

Q: What do parents need to keep in mind when disciplining their children?

A: If you have to discipline your child you want it to be age appropriate and related to the behavior you want to change. For example, if a child is biting, it does not help to bite the child back. This does not teach the child another way to deal with his or her anger and frustration. Talking to a child, placing a child in time out (for a limited amount of time) taking away a special privilege are better ways to discipline than using physical force. There are many books, support groups, parenting classes, etc. that can offer advice on various techniques to use for discipline. If you “spank” your child and it does not change the child’s behavior, maybe it would be helpful to try something else. Also, hitting a child with an object is not the same thing as spanking.

Marrus was quoted in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times regarding the issue. To read the article, click here.
To schedule an interview with Marrus, please contact: Carrie Criado, Executive Director of Communications and Marketing, cacriado@Central.UH.EDU, 713.743.2184; or John Kling, Communications Manager, jtkling@central.uh.edu , 713.743.8298.