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One isolated incident of corporal punishment involving a mother who beat her child with a pool stick does not rise to the level of child abuse because it did not cause severe pain, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court has ruled. The court in City of Philadelphia v. Department of Public Welfare therefore affirmed a DPW ruling that the mother’s indicated report of child abuse should be expunged. According to the opinion written by Commonwealth Court President Judge Joseph T. Doyle, Philadelphia County Child Protective Services received a report on Aug. 23, 1995, that the mother, K.F., beat her child, W.F. Jr., with a pool stick. The stick allegedly broke when K.F. hit the child, who was left with bruises and welts on his forearm and back. Police who were called to the scene determined there was no need to remove W.F. from the home. The Department of Human Services assigned a social worker to the case. The social worker spoke with K.F., W.F. and W.F.’s two siblings the day after the incident. The social worker learned that K.F. hit W.F. with the stick four or five times, breaking it on his buttocks. W.F. allegedly received the bruises on his arms when he tried to shield himself from the blows. “After speaking with W.F. Jr.’s siblings, the social worker found that the type of punishment W.F. Jr. received was not the usual means of punishment administered by his parents,” Doyle said. “W.F. Jr. did not feel that he needed any medical attention and was not afraid to stay in the home.” The social workers told K.F. the report would be an indicated report, which is filed when there is evidence of abuse based on medical evidence, a child protective services investigation, or an admission of abuse from the abuser. But the social worker told K.F. that W.F. was not abused. K.F. petitioned to have the indicated report expunged, but a hearing officer denied her request. “The hearing officer noted that, while the incident may have been an isolated one in an otherwise caring and concerned family, the testimony showed that, despite what gave origin to the incident, K.F. used a pool stick to hit her child four or five times,” Doyle wrote. The hearing officer took into consideration the fact that W.F.’s arm and back still hurt the day after the incident, the description of the instrument used (which Doyle noted was smaller than a regulation pool stick), and photographs of W.F. to conclude that K.F.’s actions caused W.F. to suffer severe pain. The Bureau of Hearings and Appeals adopted the hearing officer’s recommendations. K.F. was granted reconsideration by the secretary of the Department of Public Welfare, who sustained her appeal. The DPW secretary noted that there was no medical evaluation of W.F. and that the finding that he was “sore” the next day was not the equivalent of “severe pain.” DHS appealed to the Commonwealth Court. Doyle noted that parents in the commonwealth are not prohibited from using corporal punishment on their children; however, it cannot be used if it is known to create a substantial risk of “death, serious bodily injury, disfigurement, extreme pain or mental distress or gross degradation,” Doyle said. The opinion focused on the meaning of “severe pain.” Section 6303(A) of the Child Protective Services Law, Doyle said, defines the term “serious physical injury” as any injury that causes a child severe pain or temporarily or permanently impairs a child’s physical functioning significantly. DPW argued that K.F.’s one isolated incident of corporal punishment did not cause her child severe pain and there was no medical evidence presented either way. Doyle said the court handles these types of cases on a case-by-case basis. For example, in L.A.J. v. DPW, from 1999, the court was faced with the question of whether the injuries suffered by a child when the mother hit the child’s buttocks and upper leg with a belt caused severe pain. No medical treatment was needed, the child did not experience pain the night of the incident, and the child’s functioning was not impaired, so the court found the child did not experience severe pain. Applying that reasoning to K.F’s case, the Commonwealth Court said the DPW secretary’s ruling should not be overturned. “The case at hand involves a single incident of corporal punishment in which a parent intended to strike the child on the buttocks but struck the child’s back and arm when the child tried to protect his buttocks from being hit,” Doyle said. “The social worker testified that the photographs taken the day following the incident showed ‘faint bruising’ and ‘some discoloration.’ “

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