Belt-whipping Texas judge suspended: Sign of shift on corporal punishment?

The Texas Supreme Court suspended the family-law judge who was caught on video beating his 16-year-old daughter. The move could signal that views on corporal punishment of kids are changing – even in the South. 

By , Staff writer

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    Hillary Adams declines to give comments at the Aransas County Courthouse in Rockport, Texas, on Monday. Adams's father, Judge William Adams, is fighting for visitation with his 10-year-old daughter after a temporary restraining order was issued, barring him from visiting without permission from her mother. The restraining order was issued following the October posting of a 2004 video on YouTube showing Adams beating Hillary.
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The Texas Supreme Court has suspended the Texas family-law judge whose daughter secretly videotaped him belt-whipping her, suggesting to some observers that, even in the socially conservative South, where corporal punishment is seen as important in shaping character, the fine line between discipline and abuse is shifting. 

Texas' highest court on Tuesday suspended Aransas County Judge William Adams with pay while the State Commission on Judicial Conduct investigates. Judge Adams, who makes rulings on whether parents are fit to oversee their children, found himself at the center of a national firestorm when his 23-year-old daughter, Hillary, posted a video to YouTube in October that showed him beating her. The incident had taken place in 2004. 

Adams maintains that he did nothing wrong, and the investigation could exonerate him, but the fact that the Texas court took this step is significant, says David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire Crimes against Children Research Center.

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"We're in a normative shift regarding views on corporal punishment, and what shifts the fastest are views on extremes of what is tolerated," says Mr. Finkelhor. "This video is in the cusp area where there's a lot of controversy right now."

In the YouTube clip, Adams says, "Go get the belt. The big one. I'm going to spank her now." As Hillary wails and begs her father to stop, he lashes her with a belt across the legs.

Ms. Adams says she posted the video to force her father to get help for personal issues. He said the beating looked worse than it was, and that he had the right to discipline a child who had been caught uploading pirated music. Moreover, he alleges that his daughter posted the video in retaliation for his demand that she either return to college or he'd take away her car and cell phone.

Though the statute of limitations for any child-abuse charges has passed, experts say the behavior in the video would likely not qualify as child abuse under current laws, anyway.

Socially, the South is more supportive of corporal punishment to discipline a child, laws and studies show. For example, all Southern states except Virginia allow corporal punishment in schools, while no states in the Northeast or on the West Coast do. In addition, a recent study by Southern Methodist University researcher George Holden, which videotaped 37 north Texas parents, showed that nearly all hit or swatted their child in a 36-hour period. 

On Tuesday, Adams waived a preliminary hearing on his suspension, admitted no guilt, and agreed to cooperate with the investigation. How the court's judicial conduct board deals with Adams may be the ultimate indicator of how far attitudes on corporal punishments have shifted in society's eyes.

"I'll be interested to know whether the suspension is a fig leaf to say [the Supreme Court] is taking it seriously or are they really taking it seriously," says Finkelhor.

Another Texas court is expected to rule Wednesday on whether to uphold a restraining order on Adams that keeps him from visiting his 10-year-old daughter, who lives with his ex-wife.

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