Give your son a paddling, and you might end up in the nanny state's woodshed. That's what Shawn Fraser of Bloomington and his family have discovered.
Last week, the Frasers described their long ordeal. In 2005, their then-12-year-old son, Gerard, "began running with the wrong crowd at school," explained Shawn. The boy started shoplifting, stealing money from his mother and prowling the streets at night, leaving his parents frantic.
Fraser and his wife, Natalie -- devout Christians -- feared Gerard was on a path to a life of crime that would end in prison, or worse. "We tried grounding him and withholding privileges, but he only became more defiant," Natalie said.
At their wits' end, they considered tougher love. They had previously consulted a Hennepin County social worker about corporal punishment, and she had informed them that it was OK so long as it left no marks or bruises.
After warning Gerard repeatedly and posting Bible verses to remind him of the consequences, Fraser smacked the back of his son's upper thighs 12 times with a small wooden paddle after he disobeyed and lied. He repeated the process twice over an hour and 15-minute period when the boy remained defiant. The paddling left no marks.
"I wasn't trying to harm him," Fraser said. "I was trying to teach him about the importance of self-control and respect for authority."
The Frasers landed in a nightmare that still hasn't ended. Hennepin County Child Protection Services swept up both of the couple's sons and put them in foster care for six agonizing months, with police snatching astonished Caleb, then 11, from an overnight Bible camp. The boys were finally returned after the Frasers spent thousands in a court battle.
This summer, they were vindicated when the Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned the finding of abuse, saying that parents enjoy broad latitude in disciplining their children. But the county appealed, and the family remains under supervision.
Gerard, now 15, returned recently from a Christian boarding school in Utah where his father and mother -- a materials handler and hotel kitchen worker, respectively -- sent him after raising the $50,000 tuition by refinancing their home.
The county's continued intervention is absurd, Gerard says. "I understand now that my dad paddled me because he loves me, and he wants me to have success in my life. He disciplined me, he didn't abuse me. They're very different things."
"Excessive force by a parent is obviously inappropriate," said Jill Waite, Shawn Fraser's attorney. "But this is political correctness run amok. The county's standard of harm is extremely broad, vague and subjective. Because these government workers are of the opinion that spanking is bad, they want to impose their belief on all parents."
"Where is it written that people with a social work degree know what's better for kids than their parents?" Waite said.
"We're not picking on this family," said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. "This case raises important issues far beyond them. We're responding to concerns that the Court of Appeals used a criminal definition of abuse when it should have used the civil standard."
Views on corporal punishment differ from community to community, responds Waite. The county's interpretation of the law would effectively outlaw spanking of any kind, she says.
Spanking may be out of fashion. But it's gotten a bad rap -- no pun intended, says Waite. Spanking is an important tool that parents need in their disciplinary toolbox to shape behavior.
Most Americans agree. According to research cited by Waite, commissioned by the Family Research Council, 76 percent of those surveyed said that spanking was an effective form of discipline in their home when they were children.
Common sense confirms that. When intended for correction, not retribution, and done in a controlled manner, spanking can be a powerful motivator to improve behavior.
Child protection is supposed to be about keeping kids safe. But "in trying to do good by kids, the state sometimes does bad," Waite said. Children whose family is broken up simply because government workers disapprove of their parents' approach to discipline may encounter far worse problems in an alien foster care environment.
"We need a way for children and families to be protected from the government," said Jill Clark, Natalie Fraser's attorney.
In the end, the Fraser case is about parents' fundamental right to raise their kids. Government, said Clark, "has become the third parent leaning over everyone's shoulder."