When Shawn Fraser's discipline failed to rein in his 12-year-old son, he turned to his religion, taking a wooden paddle to Gerard's upper thighs and posting Bible verses on the refrigerator, Fraser's lawyer told the state Supreme Court on Wednesday.
But after 36 blows, delivered in 12-blow increments, the 195-pound boy called authorities. Now the state Supreme Court will determine when discipline of a child crosses the line into physical abuse that requires a social worker's intervention.
For an hour Wednesday, the court heard arguments from the lawyers for Hennepin County, the boy's guardian ad litem and the parents.
Jill Waite, the attorney for Shawn Fraser, said the issue is, "How do we draw the line? How do we make it possible for parents to know what is OK and what is forbidden?"
The case dates to 2005. After Gerard called authorities, Hennepin County determined he was in need of protective intervention. The District Court agreed that he and his brother, Caleb, needed help.
But the family appealed, and in July the state Court of Appeals reversed the District Court, determining the parents were not physically abusive.
The Court of Appeals determined that for the county's intervention to be justified, physical abuse requires the use of unreasonable force or cruel discipline that is excessive under the circumstances. The county appealed.
During Wednesday's oral arguments, Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Mary Lynch argued that the totality of circumstances made this situation abusive, that the first 12 blows were "completely admissible."
The two boys are still living with their parents, who had to promise not to spank them, Clark said after the court session.
The spanking followed an incident in which Fraser said Gerard ran away from home and lied about where he had been. Midway through the spanking, Fraser's attorney said, the boy grabbed a knife and threatened to kill himself. The father took the knife and continued the paddling. Waite said, "I can't think of a more severe form of acting out than grabbing a knife and threatening to kill someone."
Justice Paul Anderson asked, "If a 12-year-old son grabs a knife and threatens suicide, is corporal punishment the appropriate answer?"
Waite said it may be appropriate if the child was being manipulative and trying to get his way. She also argued that no line was crossed because there was no injury to the child.
Justice Alan Page asked Lynch about the evidence of physical injury. Lynch said the incident as a whole created a "substantial risk of injury" and the record shows the discipline was "unreasonable."
But Page said, "If it was unreasonable, it seems to me you still have to establish physical injury."
Lynch said the child experienced "harm," but Page said the law doesn't talk about "harm."
Anderson asked Lynch whether the standard for abuse of "unreasonable physical discipline" was an objective one. Lynch said it was.
So, Anderson asked, what was it about the 36 paddles that sent this incident "Beyond the pale?"
Lynch said the third set of 12 was excessive because it was "extremely reactive in nature" and "did not fit with previously defined" discipline in the family.
Page inquired, "Are you suggesting our rule of law accommodate the rule of discipline a particular family has?"
Lynch said the discipline must fit within a family's scheme.
But Waite noted that the father had spoken with a social worker about corporal punishment before using it and was told he could use physical punishment as long as he left no marks or bruises. The paddling "was not a decision made in haste or anger. This was planned discipline," Waite said.
Briefly referencing the federal debate about torture, Anderson said he had a hard time concluding that physical injuries must be present for punishment to cross a line.
Lawyer Jill Clark, who represents Natalie Fraser, Gerard's mother, said the law clearly allows some pain to be inflicted. "When the discipline is excessive, now we're over the line," Clark said.
The case will be decided by six justices. Justice Sam Hanson did not participate. He is leaving the court at the end of the year and will be succeeded by Court of Appeals Judge Christopher Dietzen. Ironically, Dietzen wrote the Court of Appeals decision in this case. He will not participate in the Supreme Court's decision.
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747