The law regarding child abuse, including discipline taken to extreme, is considered outdated and open to interpretation. It hasn't been updated since the 1960s.
Help In Crisis Forensic Interviewer Leah Moore operates the Cherokee County Children's Advocacy Center and the Multi-Disciplinary Team. There were 156 children, ages 3-17, served by the free-standing multidisciplinary child abuse team during fiscal year 2018 for Cherokee County.
The Child Task Force works to minimize the number of interviews necessary for a child victim of sexual abuse, physical abuse, or neglect, and coordinates the system response to child maltreatment. Oklahoma legislation calls for the establishment of teams in every county.
"Each child who is alleged to be abused or neglected has the right to the broadest scope of protection resources available in his or her community," said Moore. "Child abuse does not belong to any one discipline. It is a community problem, and effective intervention requires collaboration and coordination among social workers, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, therapists, medical professionals, counselors, family advocates, and others who must work together in communities to increase the protection network for all children."
Any act or failure to act on - by a parent, caregiver or individual - that results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation is considered child abuse.
"Not all signs of child abuse are obvious," said Moore. "Ignoring children's needs; putting them in unsupervised, dangerous situations; exposing them to sexual situations; or making them feel worthless or stupid, are also forms of child abuse and endangerment - which can also leave, lasting scars."
As for corporal punishment, how to discipline a child is a personal decision a parent must make, she said.
"However, the punishment must fall within the guidelines of local, state and federal laws," Moore said.
The Oklahoma statute regarding physical abuse - HB 781, c. 58, section 844, "using ordinary force as means of discipline" - has not changed since 1963, and an update is past due, according to Eric Jordan, supervising assistant district attorney, Cherokee County District Attorney's Office.
It states that, "...provided, however, that nothing contained in this ACT shall prohibit any parent, teacher or other person from using ordinary force as a means to discipline, including but not limited to spanking, switching or paddling."
The child abuse statute 21 O.S. 843.5 states that "any parent or other person who shall willfully or maliciously engage in child abuse shall, upon conviction, be guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment in the custody of the Department of Corrections not exceeding life imprisonment, or by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year, or by a fine of not less than $500 nor more than $5,000, or both such fine and imprisonment."
As used in this subsection, "child abuse" means the "willful or malicious harm or threatened harm or failure to protect from harm or threatened harm to the health, safety, or welfare of a child under 18 years of age by another, or the act of willfully or maliciously injuring, torturing or maiming a child under 18 years of age by another."
"Other person" could include teachers or administrators delivering corporal punishment.
Jordan has had physical abuse cases in which an object - such as a bicycle chain, extension cord, or broom stick - was used to inflict injuries. Cases like these with substantiated injuries like burning or scalding resulted in prison time.
"The law starts with statutes, but is subject to interpretation," Jordan said. "But parents and their attorney, if their mechanism was to inflict pain - that's inappropriate in every jurisdiction."
That doesn't mean slaps or spanks or something in that nature, he said. Use of force should be reasonable and not intended to inflict injury.
"Those injuries are often superficial. It's difficult to look at that and say the person needs to go to the penitentiary," said Jordan.
It's a pattern of abuse that becomes a concern, he said. Children who are abused are more likely to become abusers as adults.
"Injuries to a child, and whether or not it is continuing physically or psychologically - most members of the community do not condone that," Jordan said. "Each case has to be evaluated on its own merits before criminal charges are filed."