Who will protect the children from their parents?: Confronting Domestic Violence

What a series of unfortunate events for children in our county – and in our country – recently.

Veronica Gonzalez spanked her 12-year-old daughter hard enough with a wooden spoon to cause bruising. The beating was severe enough to prompt social workers to report her to the State Department of Justice’s child abuse database with a “substantiated” abuse determination. And a trial court judge upheld that determination.

Then the Sixth District Court of Appeal in San Jose reversed the child abuse determination made by the Santa Clara County Department of Social Services.

Why? One reason was because parents do have a right to impose physical discipline on their children (disturbingly referred to as a “privilege”), and the underlying hearings never addressed the existence of this right. The finding against the mother was, therefore, determined to have been made and upheld in proceedings that were fundamentally unfair.

However, the appeals court justified its ruling by other means: namely, that other forms of punishment like grounding and confiscating the daughter’s cellphone had failed, her behavior was worsening and the mother’s intent was to discipline, not harm, the child.

I am reminded of abusers who tell their wives as they beat them: I didn’t hit you that hard, I didn’t mean to hurt you, I wouldn’t

have to do this if you hadn’t said that/done that/stepped out of line, etc. The difference with adults is that they are told in court that there is no excuse for abuse – period.

What recourse does a child have with regard to violence perpetrated by his or her parents? And if the wooden spoon doesn’t work, what’s the next step? A strap? A whip? A fist?

Once you begin to incorporate violence into a relationship with someone you supposedly love, you have contaminated it and started to teach that violence and love go together. No matter how pure our motive, where did we ever get the notion that it was OK to beat our children with a wooden spoon?

What are we teaching our loved ones about healthy relationships and healthy ways to discipline when we hit? Are we not teaching them to equate love with violence?

That’s what Nick Ladany, dean of education and psychological counseling at Santa Clara University, said. Ladany claims that spanking is the “last resort of the incompetent. If we’re not competent as parents, then we do resort to violence.”

We learn what love is not just by words, but also by behaviors. How do we show love? A kiss, a hug, an embrace. How do we show its opposite? A blow, a beating, violence. That can’t also be love.

You can’t jam two mutually exclusive concepts together – love and violence – in a single word and call it “discipline.” Even toddlers are taught the rule: “No hitting. Use your words.”

We expect that parental figures will protect their children. When guardians fail, when courts rule unwisely, when parents lobby for the right to hit/hurt/bruise/do violence in the name of discipline, who will protect the children from their parents?

Ruth Patrick, M.A., is a domestic violence consultant with the Los Altos Community Foundation’s nonprofit WomenSV program, which received the 2013 award for Outstanding Community Service from the Santa Clara County Psychological Association. For more information, visit

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