Is Hot Sauce the Line?

Jessica Beagley, the Anchorage mother whose 15 minutes of fame on Dr. Phil proved less fun than expected, was convicted of child abuse.  From the AP :

A woman who squirted hot sauce into the mouth of her adopted Russian son for lying about getting in trouble in school was convicted Tuesday of misdemeanor child abuse in what prosecutors said was a ploy to get on the “Dr. Phil” TV show.

Jessica Beagley, 36, made a videotape of how she punished the boy and submitted it to the show. The tape shows Beagley yelling at the crying boy, then tipping his chin up and pouring hot sauce in his mouth.


Beagley then had the screaming boy stand in a cold shower for sword-fighting with pencils in school.


According to Beagley (and Gary, her Anchorage cop husband), they had tried more conventional methods of disciplining one of their adopted Russian twins, to no avail.  What’s a mom to do?

Let’s be clear, the use of hot sauce (not to mention cold showers filmed for later television viewing) isn’t my idea of proper child rearing.  To me, it goes way too far.  But here’s the kicker: Who cares what I think?  My sensibilities aren’t the dividing line between lawful and criminal conduct.  Neither are yours.  Or at least they shouldn’t be.

One of the fundamental requirements of a criminal statute is that it alert people to what constitutes a crime.  Parents are entitled to, indeed, supposed to, discipline their children when they do something wrong.  They can give the kid a time out, lecture them about the evils of whatever they think is evil.  Some say it’s okay to spank a child, others not.  But hot sauce will land you in jail? 

As with so many other things we each believe we possess, though others may differ, like common sense, we each have our own concept of where the line should be drawn when it comes to appropriate discipline and child abuse.  As with common sense, each of us is certain that we’re right, though everyone else disagrees (because they too are certain that they’re right).  So there’s a bright line, but it’s different for everyone.  Not much help.

For most people who hear about Beagley’s punishment, it’s a matter of religion that she’s on one side of the line or the other.  What people don’t recognize is that they are merely judging based on their own sensibilities.  Some people won’t wear white after labor day, while others think it’s a ridiculous rule.  Of course, harming a child isn’t comparable to wearing white, but the rationale is similar: It’s just what we believe to be right.

Historically, we were a tough nation when it came to disciplining children.  “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” was once the rule of thumb, but few of us have a woodshed out back anymore.  Instead, we ponder whether to deny them the Gameboy, leaving them only with the X-box to keep them occupied.  The Puritans shudder at our weakness.

It’s not to advocate more severe punishments, but rather to question where the authority of parents to decide how to punish a child gives way to criminal conduct.  That Beagley tried lesser punishments without success, leading to increasingly harsh punishments, isn’t that unusual.  Some parents find themselves with recalcitrant children, and they are at a loss for how to control them and, hopefully, teach them how to behave.  We expect parents to do this, and their failure to teach their children well is a failure of parenting.

Certainly, conduct that causes real or permanent physical harm to a child, or anyone for that matter, exceeds the bounds of lawful conduct.  While hot sauce may be a painful punishment, does it rise to the level of serious harm that demands sanction?  It seems to be that a good whipping with a switch caused an awful lot of pain as well, not to mention the potential of permanent scarring.  And yet this was a standard punishment in this country for centuries.

I don’t know where the line should be drawn.  And that seems to be the problem, since without knowing, it’s impossible to limit one’s conduct so that we don’t cross the line.  And that’s what distinguishes criminal conduct from merely going too far.

29 thoughts on “Is Hot Sauce the Line?

  1. Gloria Grening Wolk MSW

    I expected your usual emphatic opinion. I think this woman’s behavior amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment.” Never mind what used to be (i.e., switches). We used to allow segregation everywhere. We used to consider enslaved humans to be property: If someone killed your slave, the penalty was the same as for killing your cow.

    To add to the horror of what she did to a child, she displayed the video. Her husband allowed this? He did not take the children and find another place to live? He has no responsibility? Did he enjoy watching his wife on TV? And the video of his son being tortured and then of him in the shower?

    Never mind the law. “Do unto others . . .” works for me.

  2. Shawn McManus

    I would once wonder to myself, “How could anyone abuse a child?”

    Then I had one and thought, “Yeah… OK.”

    Personally, I prefer to make them do pushups. “When you’re ready to behave, you may get up.”

  3. SHG

    The key words in your comment are “I think this woman’s behavior . . . ”  What you think (or what I thin) isn’t quite good enough to establish notice of what’s criminal for another person.

  4. Jim Majkowski

    I suggest that the severest standard of parental culpability be at least as lenient as that applicable, both de jure and de facto, to policemen and jailers, adjusted, of course, to account for the child’s age and size. If that leads to less lenity for LEOs, that might be a benefit.

    Amorphous “standards” follow when society chooses to make crimes of sins.

  5. Shawn McManus

    I understand that in some states, foster parents aren’t allowed to use physical discipline. There are probably some states that have similar regulations for the “regular” parents.

    It’s a shame really. Spare the sweat, spoil the child.

    In my perfect world, I’d like to think that a good parent can judge what is acceptable in terms of child punishment. (I know… There’s a lot of fuzzy math in there.)

  6. SHG

    Amorphous “standards” follow when society chooses to make crimes of sins.

    What a fabulous line.

  7. Gloria Grening Wolk MSW

    No argument as what you or I or anyone else thinks, but she needed notice? Read “Three Felonies a Day” to get an idea of how often people are indicted without notice that their behavior is critical. Check out the pleadings for Steve Keller’s sec. 2255 (I’ll send them to anyone who is interested) to see how someone can be imprisoned for violating a non-existent law–and he is not the first, nor will he be the last.

    If a person deserves specific notice of actions toward a child are criminal, what a long criminal code we will need. And, like con artists, cruel people can be creative in finding new ways to victimize.

  8. Jim Majkowski

    Thanks. I steal from Gerald W. Johnson ( The Lines are Drawn: American Life since the First World War as Reflected in the Pulitzer Prize Cartoons (Lippincott, 1958)) and Henry Mencken, inter alia. More pertinent Mencken:

    “They have taken the care and upbringing of children out of the hands of parents, where it belongs, and thrown it upon a gang of irresponsible and unintelligent quacks.”
    “What Is Going On in the World”, The American Mercury, Feb 33, p.135

    I enjoy your blog.

  9. SHG

    We are all well aware of Harvey’s point, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the statutory requirement that laws give notice of the conduct being criminalized.  Yes, every person “deserves” specific notice of what actions are criminal, whether toward a child, an adult or a mule.  That’s what makes law criminal, and that why we fight against people being convicted for violating non-existent laws.

    Do you not grasp the monumental logical gap in your outrage at one man’s wrongful imprisonment, but use of it to justify your condemnation of another?  This is a rhetorical question. I strongly urge you to leave it alone now, as I can see it going downhill fast.

  10. Justin T.

    I have a child abuse trial coming up against the same prosecutor, and you’ve definitely given me some good talking points to help frame my closing argument.

  11. Gloria Grening Wolk MSW

    Is it rhetorical?

    The parent’s Constitutional rights are not violated by charging her with a criminal act simply because hot pepper sauce is not described in the state criminal statutes, and publishing for worldwide viewers a video of her son in a shower is not specifically described in statutes.

    What you’re saying is, if the law does not describe fraud that specifically uses CDs, even though every other element is fraud is there, and there are victims, fraud is not criminal.

    If this woman did not know she was abusive, if this is the flip side of Munchauson syndrome (sp?), then she needs to be treated, not imprisoned. The father also needs to be held accountable. And the children need to be protected.

  12. SHG

    I believe that would Munchauson by proxy.

    The statute wouldn’t need to say “no pepper sauce,” just as it wouldn’t say “no bullets” to define murder. The statute would have to define the conduct that constitutes abuse sufficiently to distinguish forcing a child to eat snails from pepper sauce. Without definition, any act that offended a prosecutor (or you) could be turned from proper parental punishment to criminal abuse.  We are supposed to be a nation of laws, not men (or MSWs), and thus look to the law to define what’s a crime rather then the sensibilities of a prosecutor, judge, juror or blawg commenter (or writer).

  13. Gloria Grening Wolk MSW

    Yes, you are right on both points.

    Which brings us back to criminalizing the videos of police conduct and criminalizing marriage between people of different races. Such a wide gap between our ideal selves and what we do.

  14. SHG

    In our ideal selves, neither of us would ever have to discuss any conduct that comes close to harming a child.  Personally, I find the idea utterly reprehensible, but that’s just my sensibility.

  15. Billy

    While the hot sauce mom isn’t going to be anyone’s mother of the year, well McIlhenny’s, maybe…when can we expect the Nanny State prosecutorial sweep of parents who wash their children’s filthy mouths out with soap?

  16. REvers

    Since we’ve established that it can be a criminal act to give your child what, essentially, is food, I guess we should think about which other foods should be criminal. I’ll have to vote for broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts. I always considered having to eat those as cruel, if not unusual.

    Come to think of it, I still do.

  17. John Burgess

    I’d like to know just which hot sauce was applied. From the video, it appears to be Crystal, a not-very-hot-at-all sauce. Discomfort more than pain. Had she used an unadulterated habanero, then maybe that’s excessive. I say ‘maybe’ because my son, even as a four-year-old, loved to pour hot sauce on his food. As a 26-y/o now, he still does.

    Nevertheless, the mom was convicted by the jury for misdemeanor child abuse, AP reports. No sentence yet.

  18. Catherine Mulcahey

    Want to trade? Broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts for hominy, mustard greens and beets? Actually, cruciferous vegetables may qualify as an infraction, but forcing mustard greens on a child is clearly felonious.

  19. REvers

    Hominy, especially when ground into grits, is the food of the gods. Mustard greens, served with pepper vinegar and hot cornbread with fresh butter, isn’t quite in the same company as hominy, but it’s right up there.

    Beets? Meh. They’re barely edible raw, but that’s about it.

    I guess I’ll trade you for two out of three.

  20. Peter E. Brownback III

    Mr. Greenfield,

    An impressive performance in the field of blogging. By getting your readers to focus on the subject of the blog entry, you distracted them from your blatant use of three (3)violent epigrams/cliches in one sentence – perhaps a record.

    “”Spare the rod and spoil the child,” was once the rule of thumb, but few of us have a woodshed out back anymore.”

    1. Spare the rod and spoil the child.
    2. Rule of thumb.
    3. Taking someone to the woodshed.

    All done while puffing up our past national character (“Historically, we were a tough nation when it came to disciplining children.”) and ignoring the contributions of the Brits from whom the phrase seems to come (Samuel Butler, 1662) (Yes, I googled it.).

    Speaking (or writing) of Samuel Butler (17th century version), we would not have these legal issues if an angry or distressed or abusive or intoxicated parent simply had her/his/their child/ren read The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler (19th century version). After 20 pages of that tome, any child would go and sin no more.

    BTW, Texas Pete is the hot sauce of choice for all discriminating users. Not opinion, fact.

    Peter E. Brownback III

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