Lovan C. v. Dept. of Children and Families

Connecticut Appellate Court

86 Conn. App. 290 (2004)

December 7, 2004

 

When does corporal punishment constitute child abuse for purposes of placement on the child abuse and neglect registry? That is the tricky question that the appellate court tackled in its controversial decision in Lovan C. The court, on its own volition, broke new ground by determining that administrative hearing officers in substantiation hearings (of abuse and neglect for purposes of inclusion on the registry) must determine whether parental corporal punishment was reasonable and whether the parent “believed the punishment was necessary to maintain discipline or to promote the child’s welfare.”

The case arose out of an incident that occurred in September 1999, when Lovan C., spying her five year old daughter caroming off her canopy bed, picked up her child’s belt and struck her three times – leaving a one-inch bruise on her thigh. A police officer (contacted by the child’s father) found no evidence of child abuse, but the Department of Children and Families (“Department”), acting on a court referral (in a domestic relations context) later placed the mother on the child abuse and neglect registry. Lovan lost her administrative appeal, and subsequently the Superior Court dismissed her court challenge.

The appellate court immediately took the Department’s hearing officer to task for not interpreting the reasonableness of the corporal punishment meted out by the mother. While admitting that the hearing officer followed statutory procedure by finding abuse pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. §46b-120 (abuse constitutes injury other than by accidental means …), the court departed from the hearing officer’s view that law, regulations and Department policy (e.g. Department policy manual § 34-2-7) afford no discretion or determination of intent when substantiating abuse for registry purposes. Even in this case, where the facts indicated that the child’s father made the initial referral out of “spite” (and all other indications were that the mother was not abusive in any regard), the statutory framework mandated a finding of abuse as a non-accidental physical injury.

In a creative, though somewhat curious endeavor, the court, sua sponte, brought to light Conn. Gen. Stat. § 53a-18, Connecticut’s criminal statute governing corporal punishment. Borrowing from that statute’s language (and citing criminal cases interpreting the “reasonableness” of exercising parental control such as State v. Leavitt, 8 Conn. App. 517 [1986]), the court determined that prior to issuing a substantiation finding in a corporal punishment matter, a determination of the “reasonableness” of the discipline must be undertaken. Raising the always provocative legislative intent factor, the court inferred the legislature’s intent to protect parents from reprisals for physically disciplining their children. Borrowing from § 53a-18, the court reasoned that corporal punishment analyses must be factual in nature and must examine what is “reasonable” under the circumstances. The court then went on to analyze the reasonableness of the conduct in this case, and finding no malice or ill motive behind Lovan’s actions, concluded that the substantiation must be reversed for lack of substantial evidence that the discipline was unreasonable. The court then ordered the department to remove her name from the registry.

This case may be found on the Judicial Branch’s web site by going tohttp://www.jud.state.ct.us/external/supapp/Cases/AROap/AP86/86ap47.pdf

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