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People v. Karen P.

February 26, 1998



JUSTICE WOLFSON delivered the opinion of the court:

Courts, as they should, tread carefully when dealing with claims of child abuse. This case concerns such a claim, and it raises other compelling questions that must be addressed: When is it legally appropriate for the State to exercise a degree of power that removes a child from the custody of her mother, making the child a ward of the court? What facts are required to justify that kind of intrusion into family life?

In this case we find the trial court erred when it determined a mother imposed excessive corporal punishment on her daughter within the meaning of the Juvenile Court Act. Because we find the child was not abused, we vacate the order making her a ward of the court. FACTS

On June 20, 1995, the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) filed a Petition for Adjudication of Wardship and Motion for Temporary Custody. In the petition, DCFS stated that Jessica P., born April 24, 1991, had been removed from her mother's home on June 16, 1995, because she was neglected and abused. The petition alleged Jessica was neglected due to an "injurious environment." 705 ILCS 405/2-3(1)(b) (West 1994). The allegations of abuse were premised on physical abuse and excessive corporal punishment. The petition said Jessica had "sustained cuts, welts, and bruises on her buttocks and legs as a result of being beaten by mother." 705 ILCS 405/2-3(2)(i), (v) (West 1994). The petition further alleged there was a substantial risk that Jessica might sustain physical injury in the future because her mother "refused to accept services." 705 ILCS 405/2-3(2)(ii) (West 1994). The accompanying Motion for Temporary Custody stated there was "urgent and immediate necessity" to take the child into custody, the severity of the injuries and seriousness of the allegations made it "too risky" to leave the child in the home, and "reasonable efforts cannot prevent or eliminate the necessity of removal of the child from the home." See 705 ILCS 405/2-10(2) (West 1994). A temporary custody hearing (705 ILCS 405/2-9, 10 (West 1994)) was held the same day.

At the hearing, the court learned that Jessica's parents, Scott (also Scott P.) and Karen (also Karen P. or respondent), obtained a judgment of divorce on December 21, 1994. They had been separated for more than a year before the divorce became final. Pursuant to the agreed custody order in the divorce judgment, Karen and Scott maintained joint custody of Jessica, Karen was to have physical custody, and Scott received visitation.

Six weeks after the divorce, Scott married Kim. Later, Karen became engaged to marry Bill in September 1995.

On June 11, 1995, Scott visited the Schaumburg Police Department and met with Detective Smith to report his ex-wife's use of corporal punishment. Scott told Detective Smith about an incident that occurred six months earlier, in December 1994. When he got Jessica for visitation, Scott said, Karen told him she had disciplined Jessica using a wooden spoon and had caused a bruise on her buttocks. Scott didn't report this incident until now, he said, because he hadn't been concerned until Jessica reacted strangely on a recent boating trip. He said Jessica became frightened by the boat's oars because they resembled "the rod" Jessica's mother used to discipline her.

On June 12, 1995, Sharon Dorfman, a DCFS worker, was assigned to investigate Scott's report, which had been relayed to the child abuse hotline. Within 24 hours of receiving the report, Dorfman visited Karen at her home. Dorfman described Karen as "receptive" and cooperative. Karen readily admitted using "the rod" (a wooden spoon) for discipline. Karen said she did this because of parenting classes and teachings she received in her church. Karen explained that she believed it was wrong to hit with the hand because the hand represents love. Therefore, it was better, Karen thought, to use an object such as the wooden spoon, instead of the hand, to discipline.

Karen demonstrated to Dorfman the manner and force she used when disciplining Jessica. Karen said she hit Jessica only on her buttocks, over clothing, and her intent was not to harm, but to cause a "sting" to get her attention. Though Karen said she had been using "the rod" regularly, Karen admitted to causing a bruise on Jessica's buttocks on only one occasion, six months earlier. Later in the investigation this bruise was found to have been about 1" in size. Throughout the entire investigation, DCFS never uncovered any further evidence that Jessica ever sustained additional bruises or observable injury as a result of the spankings.

Dorfman told Karen that hitting Jessica with a spoon could be excessive corporal punishment if it caused bruises. She asked Karen to refrain from using the rod for discipline. Dorfman also offered Karen counseling and parenting classes so she could learn some alternative methods of discipline. Karen refused the counseling, but agreed to attend parenting classes.

Because Karen refused to allow Dorfman to inspect Jessica for bruises, Dorfman asked Detective Smith to visit Karen. Detective Smith, along with a female officer, visited Karen that same day. Detective Smith said Jessica was wearing a swimsuit and no bruises were evident.

Detective Smith spoke to Karen about using "the rod" and urged her to stop this practice. Karen explained, however, that she never hit Jessica out of anger. Going to get the rod gave her a "cooling off" period. Karen also spoke to Jessica about the behavior and, after the discipline, they would pray and she would give Jessica forgiveness.

Detective Smith said he warned Karen she could be arrested for battery. He confiscated the 9-inch wooden spoon Karen had been using as "the rod." He also asked Karen to bring Jessica to the Child Advocacy Center the next day for an interview.

The following day, on June 14, 1995, Jessica was interviewed at the Child Advocacy Center. Detective Smith watched the interview through a two-way mirror. He said Jessica exhibited no signs of abuse. She was unafraid of the interviewer and appeared "normal" and healthy. He said Jessica told the interviewer that she got hit "lots" when she was "foolish" and she got hit even more if she cried. He couldn't remember whether Jessica said her butt sometimes got "blue" or if she said "red." He became concerned, however, because Jessica reported that she had been disciplined with the rod the night before.

Detective Smith informed Dorfman of Karen's recent use of the rod. Dorfman made an appointment to visit Karen on June 16, 1995. At this second visit, Dorfman and Detective Smith questioned Karen together. Again, Karen openly admitted that she used the rod on Jessica. Karen said she disciplined Jessica "for urinating." Karen told them she typically struck Jessica "about four times or until her behavior was proper."

Dorfman asked Karen if she would refrain from using the rod on Jessica until she began attending parenting classes. Karen refused. After thoughtful reflection, Karen said she would not stop using the rod because that would mean she didn't love Jessica.

Dorfman characterized Karen as "honest" and straightforward. Dorfman said she would have left Jessica in the home if Karen said she would stop using the rod. Because Karen refused to stop using the rod, however, Jessica was taken into protective custody. A second, 12-inch wooden spoon, which Karen had used to discipline Jessica, was confiscated by Detective Smith at this time.

Karen testified at the temporary custody hearing. Though she verified all that had been testified to by Dorfman and Detective Smith, Karen said she would agree to stop using the rod for discipline. Karen said she believed the rod was an effective form of discipline, but she would discontinue its use because she didn't want her child to have to go through the disruption and confusion of the court proceedings. She also did not want to be separated from her daughter anymore. Karen informed the court she had already begun the process of signing up for parenting classes.

After hearing the evidence, Judge Aron ruled: "Okay; the court does find first of all that both mother and father were present in court today; that Probable Cause does exist; that the minor is abuse (sic) or neglected based on the testimony heard today about the mother admitting hitting the Minor with the wooden spoons and leaving bruises and her belief in the rod of correction.

I believe that Urgent and Immediate Necessity does exist to support removal of the Minor from the home. Once again I believe mother is probably one of the most honest and sincere people that I have ever seen in this room. I believe her religious beliefs are not superficial, even though she wants to stop this invasion of her home and her privacy; that I believe those religious beliefs need to be talked out a little more or thought about a little bit more; for that reason I don't believe that she can change easily, even though she wants to or says she wants to today.

I think reasonable efforts have been made but have not eliminated the Urgent and Immediate Necessity to remove this child from the home. The Minor should be removed. Temporary Custody has been granted to DCFS guardianship administrator (sic) with the right to place the Minor into and consent to any medical or dental treatment necessary to safeguard the life and health of the Minor."

Jessica was initially placed with her paternal grandparents while a homestudy was completed on Scott and his new wife, Kim. All visitations with Jessica were to be supervised.

Subsequently, Judge Hayes issued an order dated July 7, 1995, placing Jessica with Scott under an order of protection. Karen's visitation with Jessica was to remain supervised.

Though the adjudication hearing was originally set for September 21, 1995, the hearing was not held until February 6, 1996. All of the witnesses who testified at the temporary custody hearing testified again at this hearing. In addition, however, Karen presented three witnesses in her defense: Sandy Rabenda, who had been Karen's next door neighbor for three years; Marie Amejia, Jessica's babysitter from November 1994 until June 1995; and Peggy Koehl, Jessica's godmother. All of these witnesses testified that they had seen Jessica regularly and never saw any bruises or evidence of abuse. They testified that Karen was a good mother, though she believed in disciplining with the wooden spoon she called the "rod." Everyone described Karen as patient. Karen never raised her voice or shouted at Jessica in anger. When Jessica misbehaved, Karen took Jessica into the bathroom to discipline her.

Amejia said Karen had taken Jessica into the bathroom at her home on a few occasions. She could overhear Karen explaining to Jessica what was wrong with her behavior and then heard Karen administer "two to three taps on the bottom." Amejia said ...

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