- The Washington Times - Monday, September 4, 2000

To spank or not to spank. That will be the question before Virginia's Department of Social Services tomorrow when it holds public hearings on new regulations that allow foster parents to use physical punishment on children in their care.

The regulations were adopted in June after the department's staff proposed them. They have since raised a public outcry in the state, most notably from the Coalition for the Protection of Children in Foster Care, which consists of several groups whose goal is to prevent child abuse.

Coalition members worry that the regulations could be interpreted to allow foster parents to hit, pinch, jerk, shake, bind or lock a child in a closet.

"When you are talking about shaking, and we know the number of children that die of it, this becomes really serious," said Stephen Jurentkuff, executive director of the Virginia chapter of Prevent Child Abuse, one of the members of the coalition.

Mr. Jurentkuff said he was hoping that tomorrow's hearings would establish the dangers involved in such regulations. "We will argue that this is not a good approach to foster care," he said, adding that he hoped between 50 and 100 people would turn up to testify.

In Virginia, 7,500 children are in foster care at any given time. Approximately two-thirds of them are there because of abuse or neglect, experts said.

They also said children see physical punishment as a method of rejection, not as loving discipline. For this reason, existing regulations in the state, which allow no punishment at all, "are the best way to go," Mr. Jurentkuff said. "This is the best protection for children in foster care."

Janet S. Hodge, a foster parent in Virginia opposed to the regulations, urged proponents to look at the situation from a child's perspective. "They are in a strange place, with new people taking care of them. They're scared, and they're vulnerable."

One of the arguments the Department of Social Services made while pushing the resolutions was that prospective foster parents sometimes backed out because they could not use strict measures to control the children.

Commissioner of Social Services Sonia Rivero had said she wanted to make sure potential foster and adoptive parents are not turned away because they refuse to sign a statement saying they will not use any type of corporal punishment.

Sam Sabbagh, president of the Virginia Association of Licensed Child Placing Agencies, said he had "hardly ever" known of an incident in which foster parents had backed out of taking in a child because they could not use physical punishment.

"We teach alternatives to physical punishment, like firm discipline and counseling, that are far more effective," he said.

Physical punishment itself could lead to several problems in children, he said. Physical abuse "is the most common course to foster homes," Mr. Sabbagh said. "These are the children that come to us. They have been physically abused and neglected at home… . We see a long-term negative effect in physical abuse."

The regulation has found supporters, however, including in the legislature.

Delegate Richard H. Black, Loudoun Republican, said the regulation was a "very positive development," especially in the wake of several incidents in which children turned guns on their classmates.

"If we are to correct the situation, we are going to have to take the common-sense approach," he said. "We've done this [spanking] for thousands of years."

The use of physical punishment in foster homes has become necessary, he said, because children coming into such homes often have behavior problems. "Having truly difficult, rebellious children living in your homes and not having any authority over them can be very difficult, as these children realize they are free to do anything they want," he said.

"I was spanked as a child," he said, adding that the state should not be dictating to parents how to raise children.

"Children who grow up without any sort of discipline become contemptuous of parents and society," he said.

Opponents of the regulations contend that it "would become very difficult for child placement agencies like ours to differentiate what's abusive and what's not. It may put foster parents into a position that they will become abusive," Mr. Sabbagh said.

"It is important to know that physical punishment has long-term dangerous consequences for the child," he said.

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