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"When the state intervenes in the family, it runs roughshod .."

by Cathy Young

The contentious debate over corporal punishment of children - a part of the "culture wars" between conservatives who support parental authority and liberals inclined to be suspicious of it - has recently focused on Michigan, with two cases of mothers accused of assault for slapping their wayward teen-age daughters. A month ago, 32-year-old Kathi Herren of Novi was convicted and sentenced to probation and counseling. Last week, 47-year-old Deborah Skousen of Genoa had better luck: A jury took just more than an hour to clear her.

   Both women have presented their prosecution as a misguided intrusion by the state into parental discipline. They have many supporters. Indeed, in many ways, the two stories could be seen as perfect cases for champions of parental rights.

   Herren's 14-year-old daughter, Amber Russell, had been behaving defiantly, drinking alcohol and stealing cigarettes. The day of the incident that led to the charges, Amber had left home despite being grounded; coming back, she yelled profanities at her mother and stepfather, then went up to her room and turned up the stereo. It was then that the confrontation took place. The police were called by a neighbor in whose house Amber had sought refuge.

   Eighteen-year-old Rebecca Skousen, too, had been breaking rules, drinking and lying. The slap came after she disappeared from home for the weekend, then refused to say where she had been. Deborah Skousen testified that Rebecca called her vulgar names (Rebecca made the same charge against her mother). The next day, the girl complained to her high school counselors, who sent her to the emergency room - even though it's in dispute whether she suffered even a slight bruise - and called the cops.

   Skousen was charged with aggravated domestic violence (what, then, would simple domestic violence be?). If convicted, she could have received a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

   Even many parents, and experts, who oppose physical discipline say the authorities have gone too far. Parents, they say, are trapped between the rock of abuse laws and the hard place of increasingly popular statutes making parents responsible for their teen-age kids' misconduct. Consider another Michigan case. In 1996, Anthony and Susan Provenzino of St. Clair Shores were convicted for failing to control their 17-year-old son, who was accused of several burglaries and drug possession (a judge later threw out their convictions).

   It's very well to say parents can discipline without resorting to physical force. But reasoning doesn't always work, and sometimes the parents do need to remind the kids who's the boss - however offensive that may sound to proponents of warm and fuzzy egalitarianism.

   And yet these cases aren't as simple as parental-rights hawks might think. Herren is an alcoholic and was intoxicated when she hit her daughter (she also smashed a lamp and threw a stereo on the floor); she was convicted by jurors who had all swatted their own kids, and the judge concluded that her actions were more like a drunken brawl than parental discipline.

   There were no such obvious problems in the Skousen case, which probably explains the different outcome. Nevertheless, it seems likely that Deborah Skousen has a nasty temper. According to press reports, the father, Samuel Skousen, seemed fearful of his wife when he testified; after slapping Rebecca, Deborah Skousen gave him "a shove" for being too lenient with the girl. (What do feminists who dismiss female aggression in the home as a misogynist fantasy make of all this?)

   Perhaps Skousen could have benefited from counseling, which the prosecutors had wanted her to accept in exchange for dropping the charges - and which Rebecca claims was her only goal. But surely, Rebecca needed counseling at least as much.

   The problem is that when the state intervenes in the family, it runs roughshod over complex dynamics, slapping the "victim" label on one person and the "perpetrator" label on another. This approach doesn't always fit domestic violence cases involving adults. Where parents and children are concerned, it's a disaster.

Cathy Young is vice-president of the Women's Freedom Network. Her column is published on Wednesday. Write any responses to The Detroit News, Editorial Page, 615 W. Lafayette Blvd., Detroit, Mich. 48226 or fax to (313) 222-6417 or send an e-mail message to's e-mail address is

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