When a 15-year-old girl sneaked out of the house for the umpteenth time to meet her drug-dealing boyfriend at a party, her father went after her in his truck.
He spotted her at a pay phone near their home outside Picton, Ont., and told her to get in. She refused, and he grabbed her by the shirt and shoved her into the truck. They headed home, but the girl took off again and made it to the party. The parents managed to get their daughter home later, but only after calling police for help.
The shirt-grabbing incident didn't end there. The father, who can't be named to protect his daughter's identity, was charged with assault, setting off a two-year legal battle that tested the limits of how far a parent can go to discipline a teen under the Criminal Code.
"It's just about wore me out," he said yesterday. "You got to think of your child's health and welfare, because you love them, you raised them, you care for them."
The daughter told police that night that her father assaulted her at the pay phone. She never gave a formal police statement, and a doctor found no evidence of injury, according to court documents.
But the father was arrested the next day, Nov. 19, 2006, and charged with four counts of assault and choking.
His lawyer argued that under Section 43 of the Criminal Code, a parent has the right to use reasonable force to correct their child's behaviour. But Mr. Justice Geoffrey Griffin of the Ontario Court of Justice disagreed. Judge Griffin cited a 2004 Supreme Court of Canada decision on Section 43 that set limits on how far parents and teachers could go with corporal punishment. In a case on the legality of spanking, the top court said physical force is not effective at correcting behaviour in babies and teenagers, and therefore amounts to assault.
Based on that ruling, Judge Griffin said the provision did not apply to teenagers because "they are not capable of benefiting from such correction." He convicted the father on one assault charge.
The conviction devastated him. It affected his business and left him humiliated in the small town. "I held my head up and stuck by it and hoped for the best," he said yesterday.
He appealed to the Ontario Superior Court. In a ruling made on March 13 and released yesterday, Madam Justice Cheryl Robertson overturned the conviction and ruled that Section 43 did apply to teenagers.
"Forcing his child into a truck, no matter how delicately phrased, was a bad situation for both, but I do not find it crossed the line as a criminal act," the judge said. The Supreme Court "did not hold, as the trial judge seems to have concluded, that any non-consensual application of force by a parent against a teenager is precluded in all circumstances. To exclude all force against teenagers takes the comments of the court out of context."
The judge noted the family's difficult history with the girl, their third child. She had been rebellious for years, and the parents had won a restraining order against the boyfriend, who had a history of drug abuse and violence. At one point, the parents found letters from the boyfriend instructing their daughter to "kill the sluts when nobody is around," the judge noted.
The father "corrected her by applying force in order to control or restrain his child so as to protect her from going to an inappropriate party," the judge said. "He used force to express 'symbolic disapproval' of her behaviour. It was clear that she was not going to stop on the basis of common sense and discussion. His parenting toolbox was empty."
Crown attorney Hilary Whitmey said she has not decided whether to appeal the ruling.
The debate over Section 43, known as the spanking law, has been raging for years. A group called Repeal 43, consisting of more than a dozen social agencies, wants the provision removed from the Criminal Code. "We just don't think hitting children is right," said a spokeswoman from the Child Welfare League of Canada, which is part of the organization. The Senate is considering legislation to repeal the section. Other groups call the provision reasonable.
The judge in the Picton case "has made an astute judgment in terms of not narrowly defining it," said Emily Noble, president of the Canadian Teachers' Federation, which supports Section 43. "A lot of things are not black and white but need to be taken in context."
The father hopes his legal saga has ended. His daughter, now 17, is back at home and things are going somewhat better, he said. When asked if he had any advice for parents facing similar problems, he replied: "You got to do what you think is best for them. ... It's really tough, I'll tell you, it's really tough."