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Parental Discipline and Child Abuse

How does parental discipline apply to child abuse cases in Wisconsin?  A top Milwaukee criminal defense attorney explains:

Any parent can tell you having children is difficult. It requires a lot of patience and attention. A big part of being a parent is knowing when and how to discipline your child. Each parent needs to make their own determination as what they are comfortable with and what they feel will be most helpful to their child. There is no one correct way to discipline a child. The major debate regarding discipline is whether a parent should use physical discipline. Parental discipline (physical) is permitted under Wisconsin Law, however, parents needs to proceed with caution because permitted discipline can easily turn into physical abuse of a child.

If you’re charged with child abuse, give Meyer Van Severen a call immediately.  One of our top Wisconsin criminal defense lawyers will speak with you about how to defend your case.  We can be reached 24/7 at (414) 270-0202.


Physical Abuse of a Child

Physical abuse of a child is governed by Wisconsin Statute 948.03. The Statute distinguishes between intentionally causing harm; recklessly causing harm; and failing to act to prevent harm to the child.

Intentionally causing bodily harm to a child is controlled by statute 948.03(2), which states:

  • Whoever intentionally causes great bodily harm to a child is guilty of a Class C Felony.
  • Or, whoever intentionally causes bodily harm to a child is guilty of a Class H Felony.
  • Whoever intentionally causes bodily harm to a child by conduct which crates a high probability of great bodily harm is guilty of a Class F Felony.

The deciding factor when you are talking about intentionally causing harm to a child is the level of harm caused. As the level of harm to the child increases, so to does the severity of the criminal punishment. If you intentionally cause bodily harm to a child, you could face up to 6 years in prison. If you intentionally cause bodily harm through actions that create a high probability of great bodily harm to a child, you could face up to 12 years and 6 months in prison. Finally, if you intentionally cause great bodily harm to a child you could face up to 40 years in prison.


Recklessly causing bodily harm to a child is controlled by statute 948.03(3), which states:

  • Whoever recklessly causes great bodily harm to a child is guilty of a Class E Felony.
  • Or, whoever recklessly causes bodily harm to a child is guilty of a Class I Felony.
  • Whoever recklessly causes bodily harm to a child by conduct which creates a high probability of great bodily harm is guilty of a Class H Felony.

Recklessly causing harm to a child is different then intentionally doing so. In these situations, the conduct may not be intended to cause harm to a child, but the end result is the same. Much like intentionally causing harm, recklessly doing so is still criminal even though not intended. If the conduct is reckless and simply causes bodily harm to the child, you could face up to 3 years and 6 months in prison. If the conduct causes bodily harm to a child and is so reckless that there was a high probability that great bodily harm could have been caused, then you could face up to 6 years in prison. Finally, if the conduct is so reckless that it in fact causes great bodily harm to the child, then you could face up to 15 years in prison.


Failing to act to prevent bodily harm is controlled by statute 948.03(4), which states:

  • A person responsible for the child’s welfare is guilty of a Class F Felony if that person has knowledge that another person intends to cause, is causing or has intentionally or recklessly caused great bodily harm to the child and is physically and emotionally capable of taking action which will prevent the bodily harm from occurring or being repeated, fails to take that action and the failure to act exposes the child to an unreasonable risk of great bodily harm by the other person of facilitates the great bodily harm to the child that is caused by the other person.
  • A person responsible for the child’s welfare if guilty of a Class H Felony if that person has knowledge that another person intends to cause, is causing or has intentionally or recklessly caused bodily harm to the child and is physically and emotionally capable of taking action which will prevent the bodily harm from occurring or being repeated, fails to take that action and the failure to act exposes the child to an unreasonable risk of bodily harm by the other person or facilitates the bodily harm to the child that is caused by the other person.

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Criminal penalties:

If you find yourself in a situation where you can act to prevent either bodily harm or great bodily harm to a child, and you do noting, you can be punished. Remember, if the actions you fail to prevent could result in bodily harm to the child, you could face up to 6 years in prison. And, if the actions you fail to prevent could result in great bodily harm to the child, you could face up to 12 years and 6 months in prison.


A mother disciplines her child.
Parental discipline? Or child abuse?

Privilege of Parental Discipline

In Wisconsin, privileged conduct is a defense to prosecution.  This is the case even though the underlying conduct is still criminal in nature.  One of the privileges allowed in Wisconsin is the privilege of parental discipline.

The privilege of parental discipline applies when the actor’s conduct is reasonable discipline of a child by a person responsible for the child’s welfare. Reasonable discipline may involve only such force as a reasonable person believes is necessary.  You can’t intend death or great bodily harm, or discipline which subjects to child to an unreasonable risk of those.

This definition has a number of different parts that are important to fully understand. First, this privilege only applies in situation involving reasonable discipline by a person who is responsible for the child’s welfare. Further, the privilege only applies in situations where reasonable force is used on the child. If the force is such that it is intended to or creates an unreasonable risk of great bodily harm to the child, then the privilege does not apply and the conduct is likely criminal. It is important to know that when using parental discipline, the standard is what a reasonable person would think. Just because you think the discipline you use is reasonable, it doesn’t mean your behavior is privileged.  Causing an injury to the child, through any type of parental discipline, is likely considered physical abuse.


Hire a top Milwaukee criminal defense attorney:

Meyer Van Severen, S.C. is a top-ranked criminal defense firm in Milwaukee, WI.  Our defense attorneys practice throughout the state.  Call us at (414) 270-0202 if you’re charged with child abuse or any other crime.  We’ll set you up to meet with one of our excellent criminal defense attorneys at a free initial consultation.  At that meeting, we can begin planning your defense.  In conclusion – don’t wait.  Give us a call now.

Attorney Matt Last