Family Matters

The Case of the Texas Judge: When Does Spanking Cross the Line to Abuse?

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Regarding the YouTube video of his beating his teenage daughter with a belt, Aransas County Court-at-Law Judge William Adams said, "It's not as bad as it looks on tape."

Much of the nation has spent seven minutes watching slack-jawed as a Texas judge beat his teenage daughter with a belt in a YouTube video that’s burning up the blogosphere. The video, made in 2004, was recorded with a hidden camera by Hillary Adams, the daughter of Aransas County Court-at-Law Judge William Adams. She posted it last week in a bold move that could potentially empower other abused children to do what she did: secretly install a video camera in her room to catch what she described as repeated acts of violence.

Hillary said she concealed the camera’s red “on” light with a scarf. (One can only imagine the consequences had her father discovered that his expletive-laced orders to her to “bend over the bed” were being recorded.) “It could be that this video will inspire other youth to post stuff,” says George Holden, a professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University who has studied corporal punishment for 15 years. “It’s an interesting case of how media could prompt changes in parents’ behavior. Who knows what may emerge in the next week?”

Judge Adams isn’t sticking around to find out. He’s gone on paid leave in the wake of the frenzy over the footage, which shows the family-law judge viciously whipping his then-16-year-old daughter with a leather strap. He also released a statement through his attorney calling into question his daughter’s motives for releasing the video, suggesting that she is retaliating against him after a recent disagreement over money. According to the statement, which was posted by MSNBC:

If this entire event was a plea for help and healing, the methodology is certainly unorthodox. Judge Adams, who among other reasons, still has a minor daughter to consider, chooses to involve the media as little as possible whilst personal family matters are sorted through. The public may ponder what consideration Hillary Adams gave her little sister before subjecting the entire family to worldwide microscopic scrutiny, and permanent consequences.

When Hillary Adams, now 23, posted the video, she urged in accompanying text that her father not be re-elected. On Thursday, she told the Today show that she thinks her father needs “help and rehabilitation” but that she doesn’t want him to lose his job.

MORE: The First Real-Time Study of Parents Spanking Their Kids

William Adams, for his part, doesn’t appear to have done much soul-searching about the incident itself. He told a reporter for Corpus Christi KRIS-TV that he’d simply punished his daughter for illegally downloading music from the Internet. “It’s not as bad as it looks on tape,” he said.

It’s likely that he really believes that, says Holden. “It really reflects his mindset and beliefs that hitting a child is okay,” says Holden, who in June presented his findings from the first real-time study of parents spanking their children at an international conference on corporal punishment.

Below, Holden, a father of three who says he has never spanked his children, discusses the nitty-gritty of corporal punishment and delves into the nuances of when it veers into child abuse:

HEALTHLAND: What exactly does the research show in terms of the percentage of parents who hit their kids?

HOLDEN: Between 70% and 90%. Most of that occurs in the peak spanking ages of 2 to 5 when kids are typically noncompliant and curious. They engage in activities parents don’t want them to and they don’t listen.

What happens when the children get older?

It’s still surprising the number of parents who do hit their teens. It’s much less, like 20%, but there’s still a sizable number of parents who get angry with their teens and resort to physical punishment. The whipping with a belt was pretty extreme.

Is corporal punishment seen as acceptable?

It depends on which set of parents you’re talking with. It depends on their background, their heritage, their education level. Some parents think there’s nothing wrong with it. That’s the way they were brought up. Typically, more educated parents will, if they do engage in that behavior, be less forthcoming in admitting they do resort to violence.

What surprised me about this video was how the father seemed to methodically plan out the beating, even leaving the room to get another belt. Is that typical?

It’s more common that it’s automatic in the heat of the moment. There isn’t a lot of evidence about this, but from my tapes it’s much more instantaneous. It’s an emotional reaction and isn’t a planned event like this video illustrated. Of course there are plenty of cases where a child transgressed and the parent then says, Go get a switch.

In the video, the father was an interesting mix of in some ways being in control and in some ways being out of control. His language was pretty much out of control and incredibly angry but he was still collected enough that he could give her instructions. He was emotionally out of control but cognitively in control. It reflects his beliefs that spanking is a good way to deal with misbehavior.

Is it a good way?

Absolutely not. It’s only good for stopping immediate action because a child is upset, crying and hurting. But it does not contribute to positive behavior or development of self-control. It contributes to aggression — kids spanked are more likely to hit others, both peers and adults. It’s very confusing for kids to be hit by their parents because they think that they’re loved by their parents, yet they’re being hurt by those parents. It’s emotionally conflicting and can result in depression and emotional anxiety.

At what point does punishment cross over to child abuse?

There’s no clear-cut answer. It’s easy to say it’s child abuse if there are broken bones, injuries, major bruises. But it’s a gray line. Some people would say any hitting, including spanking, is assault and should be classified as child abuse.

Does what we saw in the video qualify as child abuse?

I would definitely call that abusive behavior. It’s a combination of his verbal tirade and the whipping. I would call Child Protective Services on him. What’s interesting is the criminal justice system does not allow prisoners to be physically punished, but here is a judge who was physically hurting his daughter and showing no self-control or restraint. It’s kind of ironic. In his work he had to subscribe to a very different model of how we punish people.

Parenting can be exasperating. What should a ticked-off parent do?

Take a time out. Separate, go to different parts of the house. Calm down. Then come back together and talk about it.

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.