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Can I Be Arrested for Disciplining My Child?

Parents have many ways of disciplining a child. Some parents take away screens, electronics or toys, send the child to their room, or give the child a spanking. Unfortunately, overzealous bystanders may claim a parent disciplining their child is going too far and report the parents for abuse. 

Washington Law Allows You to Use Physical Discipline on Your Child

Under the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 9A.16.100, the use of force on a child is not unlawful if it is "reasonable and moderate and is inflicted by a parent, teacher or guardian for purposes of restraining or correcting a child." 

 Washington State recognizes that force can be used to discipline a child and that this is not necessarily dangerous or does not constitute abuse. Unfortunately for parents, different people may have a different interpretation of what might be "reasonable" or "moderate."

The public and other parents may not be aware that Washington law allows for reasonable and moderate physical discipline. These people may take it upon themselves to report any discipline to the police or Child Protective Services (CPS).  

This can lead to a confrontation with police or CPS and even the possibility of children being taken away from their families when the parents did nothing wrong. 

Prohibited Discipline

Under Washington law, certain actions are presumed to be unreasonable when used to correct or restrain a child. These actions include: 

  1. Throwing, kicking, burning, or cutting a child;
  2. Striking a child with a closed fist;
  3. Shaking a child under the age of 3;
  4. Interfering with a child's breathing;
  5. Threatening a child with a deadly weapon; or
  6. Doing any act that is likely to cause, and does cause, bodily harm greater than transient pain or minor temporary marks. 

Whether force is reasonable or moderate depends, in part, on the age, size, condition of the child, and location of the injury. 

Mandatory Reporting of Suspected Abuse

Washington law requires certain professionals to report any suspected child abuse to CPS, including:

  • Doctors,
  • Nurses,
  • Mental health professionals,
  • Dentists,
  • Teachers and other school personnel,
  • Social workers,
  • Child care providers, and
  • Law enforcement. 

Suspected abuse must be reported by mandatory reporters. However, a teacher or health professional may believe injuries that were not caused by a parent are a sign of abuse. Children suffer minor injuries all the time and sometimes injure themselves through no fault of the parents. 

Children may also make up stories or exaggerate situations, especially if they are coached by an adult or fear they may get into trouble if they do not say what the adult wants to hear. This can lead to innocent parents being blamed for something they never did. 

Different Cultures May Have Different Methods of Disciplining Children

Different cultures may have different methods of disciplining children. Growing up in another country or culture may give parents a different idea of reasonable and moderate discipline. These cultural differences can lead to a misunderstanding and possible accusations of assault or abuse. 

Assault of a Child or Child Abuse Criminal Investigation  

If a responding officer believes your child is in immediate danger, they have the authority to place your child in protective custody. CPS may take custody of your child or place your child with a relative or in a foster home.

Generally, CPS can only hold your child in protective custody for 72 hours, excluding weekends and holidays, before entering into a voluntary agreement with you to return your child to your custody or taking your case before a judge for a hearing.

While law enforcement is responsible for conducting the criminal investigation, the prosecutor decides if they will bring criminal charges against you in court. Criminal charges are different from CPS investigations. CPS investigations are not criminal, but can also have negative impacts. 

Sometimes both CPS and criminal cases are happening at the same time.  This can be very complicated for a parent. An attorney who knows how to handle both types of legal proceedings is valuable.

Penalties for Assault of a Child in Washington

Criminal assault of a child is a felony in Washington. The penalties for assault of a child are based on the degree of assault: 

  • Assault of a child in the first degree (RCW 9A.36.120)
  • Assault of a child in the second degree (RCW 9A.36.130)
  • Assault of a child in the third degree (RCW 9A.36.140)

Third-degree assault of a child involves assault by means of a weapon, or with criminal negligence that causes extended suffering.  3rd-degree assault of a child is a Class C felony, with penalties including up to five years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.

Second-degree assault of a child may involve recklessly inflicting substantial bodily harm, assault with a weapon, assault by strangulation, or torture. 2nd-degree assault of a child is a Class B felony, with penalties including up to 10 years in prison and up to a $20,000 fine.

First-degree assault of a child involves the intent to inflict great bodily harm and using a firearm or deadly weapon, use of poison, or assaulting the child and inflicting great bodily harm. 1st-degree assault of a child is a Class A felony, with penalties including up to life in prison and a fine of up to $50,000.

Aside from the possibility of jail time and fines, the most harmful aspect of a conviction for assault of a child may be losing temporary custody of your children or having your contact with your child significantly restricted.

If the CPS worker or a judge decides you are a danger to your child, you may have restricted visitation with your child or none at all. In extreme cases, the court could terminate your parental rights or issue a long-term no contact order or protection order

False Claims of Abuse

There may be a number of reasons why someone would make false claims of abuse against a parent. Some in the public may even report parents from a different culture out of prejudice or racism, assuming the worst even if the witness did not get a clear idea of how the parents were disciplining the child.

Parents may also make claims of abuse in a custody dispute or bitter divorce, in order to get preferential treatment by the court, get custody of the children, or punish the other parent.

Defending Your Rights as a Parent 

Our Washington criminal defense attorneys understand how devastating it can be for a parent to be accused of harming their child. These damaging accusations can hurt your family and your reputation. We have helped parents who were unfairly accused of abuse in criminal, CPS and dependency cases. We will use our knowledge to defend you against these charges.

Contact Burke Brown Attorneys, PLLC today online or by phone at (206) 933-2414.

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