DOVER - With clarification from the Attorney General's Office on the intent of the bill, members of the House passed Senate Bill 234 Thursday in a 34 to 7 vote.
SB 234 establishes gradations of child abuse and makes child abuse a standalone crime in the Delaware Code.
Several parents questioned the bill's intent at a Tuesday House Judiciary Committee with many of them voicing concerns that it would remove their right to use corporal punishment, like spanking, to discipline their children.
Rep. Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, said this is a misunderstanding of the bill and asked Deputy Attorney General Patricia Dailey Lewis to clarify the bill's intent for members of the House as well as the public.
"This bill does not limit a parents' right to use reasonable or appropriate discipline on their children," said Ms. Dailey Lewis. "That right remains intact."
Rep. Joseph Miro, R-Pike Creek Valley, who voted against the bill, said he takes issue with the word ‘reasonable' being used to describe discipline.
"I think that's very difficult to explain, because what may be reasonable to me may not necessarily be reasonable to someone else," he said.
Ms. Dailey Lewis said the Attorney General's Office will create an ad campaign to inform the public of what is reasonable discipline and what is not.
"We will prepare a brochure and make it clear what the limits are and are not and what this bill is about," she said. "We'll attend every community meeting that you have and we will address this issue."
Even with assurances from the Attorney General's Office that the bill does not take away a parent's right to use corporal punishment to discipline their children, Rep. William Carson, D-Smyrna, said there are still too many unanswered questions surrounding the legislation for him to support it. Rep. Carson was one of the seven dissenting votes.
"I had some issues that never got answered on spanking and parental rights and how much we were taking away parental rights," he said. "I would like to have had an amendment."
Under current Delaware law, individuals who commit child abuse are charged with assault by abuse or neglect because there is no crime of child abuse on the books.
Many cases of child abuse end with the defendant being charged with a misdemeanor because prosecutors cannot prove that a child suffered "substantial pain," a requirement to charge individuals with a stiffer penalty, said Ms. Dailey Lewis.
"What this bill does is it recognizes the medical reality of pain and impairment for children," she said. "It is far different than it is for adults."
In the end, Ms. Dailey Lewis said there is a stark difference between spanking a child as discipline and abusing a child.
"I believe that people understand in their heart the difference between abuse and discipline," she said.
Staff writer Jessica Eisenbrey can be reached at 741-8242 or firstname.lastname@example.org.