When a Spanking Becomes Abuse

Greg Horn (ibtimes.co.uk)
Greg Horn (ibtimes.co.uk)

(The Root) — Thanks to a shocking new video, many Americans got a troubling reminder of why we still need National Child Abuse Prevention Month, which is designated in April to raise awareness of the issue. Last week, footage surfaced of Ohio father Greg Horn mercilessly beating his two adolescent daughters, allegedly as punishment for posting videos of themselves engaged in the sexually provocative dance known as "twerking."


Though the father was subsequently arrested, even more disturbing than the abuse was the reaction to it. Sample comments on media outlets with predominantly black audiences included the following:

They got off light … So … dad caught them doing wrong, punished them and told them why. Sounds like old-school parenting to me.

Old-school parenting, good to see it's still alive and folks applying it when warranted. I tell you what, those girls wont be Twerking no damn more on Facebook or no other social media.

Making the reaction even more disturbing is that African Americans lead other races when it comes to rates of child maltreatment, which includes both abuse and neglect, and have the highest rate of fatalities by abuse (pdf). (I was spanked as a child and don't consider myself anti-corporal punishment, but I agreed with law enforcement's determination that the video in question constituted abuse.)

Cynthia Grace, director of psychology at Harlem Hospital, which has a child- and adolescent-treatment service, said that she is not surprised at the rates of child abuse in the black community. This is in part because of cultural and religious differences between the black community and others.

"One of the factors that concerns me the most is the belief in corporal punishment — spare the rod, spoil the child — which is still alive and well in the African-American community despite efforts to raise awareness that that is not the best way to discipline a child," she said.

Grace recalled the one time she spanked her own daughter. It is something that she regrets and never did again, and she doesn't believe other parents should do it, either. It took some time for Grace to finally reach this conclusion.


She hesitated when I asked if she believes that corporal punishment should never be used, under any circumstances. She finally said that she believes it should not. Grace said that the potential for damage to a child, not just physically but also emotionally, is simply too great. She also said it is easy to forget that a child's interpretation of events can be very different from an adult's, meaning that the potential for long-term damage to the parent-child relationship is very real when any physical punishment is involved.

Grace also cited other factors that may lead to abuse, such as the economic downturn and mental-health issues: "There is a fair amount of frustration due to economic pressures, social pressures, substance-abuse issues, so people become deregulated emotionally, and as a result they lash out."


Terrie Williams, a leading mental-health advocate and author of the book Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We're Not Hurting, agreed that the role of mental health in child abuse cannot be underestimated.

"Lack of proper diagnosis and treatment for mental-health conditions in the black community is definitely a leading factor behind the statistics for child abuse," she told The Root. She added that child abuse "is to be expected when no one is getting the help they need. The childhood wounds replay themselves every minute of the day."


Williams explained that seeking out therapy and other mental-health services is crucial to sustaining the overall health of the black community. She has spoken publicly about the reluctance of many members of the community to do so, thus perpetuating a dangerous cycle.

But another solution that Grace discussed with The Root is the importance of parenting classes. Such classes have been championed by political leaders in the United Kingdom but are not considered the norm here in the United States. They are unlikely ever to become the norm, since states' rights proponents tend to bristle at any suggestion of the government giving parents child-rearing advice, even if it is simply the first lady offering nutrition tips. But Grace said of parenting classes, "[It's] such an important role, but we get very little preparation for it."


Grace lamented the fact that rarely are parents educated on alternative disciplinary solutions. They are simply told what not to do, as opposed to what they can and should do, such as using praise and rewards to reinforce positive behaviors, ultimately deterring negative ones.

Parents seeking additional information on effective disciplinary techniques should contact Harlem Hospital's Child and Adolescent Treatment Service at 212-939-1000.


Keli Goff is The Root's political correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter