Where Do You Draw The Line Between Discipline And Assault?


Most people are ashamed of family violence.  Ashamed that it happens in our communities, ashamed to be victims, ashamed to be perpetrators.

So naturally, with all this shame silencing everyone, it’s hard to know what family violence really is.

Lack of concrete details of the events that occur behind closed doors makes it easy to dismiss a vague charge of abuse as a slap or a spank instead of a vicious, calculated form of control over weaker family members.

Well, thanks to a 23-year-old from Rockport, Texas, over six million people now know exactly what domestic violence looks and sounds like.

When she was 16, Hillary Adams – who has cerebral palsy – was terrified of her abusive father.  She thought few authorities would believe her word against his, since he is a white Texas family law judge who defies the stereotypes about domestic violence perpetrators.  To get proof she set up a small video recorder in her bedroom where most of the beatings took place.

The resulting 7½ minute YouTube video captured a brutal physical and verbal attack, “justified” because Hillary had used her computer to download music and play video games when she was allowed to use the computer only for schoolwork.

Here’s the sequence of events captured on the video:

William Adams tells wife: “Get the belt, the big one, now.”

Mother calmly gets the belt.

Father threatens to belt his daughter in the face if she doesn’t roll over on her stomach to expose her back, buttocks and legs to the belt.

Father whips his daughter with the belt over 20 times.

Father screams obscenities at his daughter over 20 times.

The whole time, his daughter is sobbing, crying, and begging for him to stop.

During the beating, his obscenities and verbal messages make clear that his ultimate goal is to dominate, frighten and shame his daughter:

“Do you like it?  Are you happy now?”

“I’m going to beat you into submission.”

“You used to be such a nice obedient little girl, what happened to you?”

“You don’t deserve to be in this house.”

“If you look at me wrong, I’ll wear your ass out with this belt.”

“This is all your fault.”

It’s an incredibly painful, disturbing documentation of child abuse. I cried and sobbed myself watching it.  I had to cover my eyes for much of the video.

In part this is because I have been a victim of abuse myself.

In part it is because as a mom, I cannot bear to see children hurt and betrayed, especially by their parents.

However, I’m sure it’s not the most disturbing case of child abuse on record.  What makes this so chilling is that we see it firsthand.  There’s no denying the abuse.  No minimizing (as William Adams has done in public statements) the event as “just a spanking.”  No way to argue that Hillary deserved it or could have stopped it.

Now I am not a perfect parent.  I have screamed and yelled at my children.  I have spanked them as well.  There are several episodes from my parenting career that I deeply regret and would not want captured on YouTube.

And I know some parents who argue that fear is an effective parenting tool. That fear shows a child’s love for a parent.  I can tell you firsthand, my husband’s beatings – and the resulting fear I felt whenever I was in the same room with him – destroyed my love for him and the respect I once felt.  Trust me, fear never deepens love or strengthens respect.

There is no doubt in my mind that the video captures criminal assault, not parental discipline.   Would it be acceptable if a teacher hit a child this way?  If a boyfriend did?  Why on earth should any parent be allowed to attack a child – defenseless, smaller, weaker, under our legal and psychological control – with impunity? Anyone who “disciplines” a child thusly deserves to be prosecuted.  And in my view, they are the only  one who should be ashamed of it.

But part of why we don’t properly investigate and prosecute family abuse is that private conflicts between individuals are always hard to decipher, and abuse is morally excruciating to confront.  Most of us want to minimize child abuse.  We want to hope that the allegations are exaggerated.  Hillary Adams’ video is a wakeup call to our society.  Family abuse is actually far worse than we imagine – not far milder.  And it’s also far more widespread:  the Centers for Disease Control estimates that  one in eight American children experience or witness family violence every year.

Hillary Adams has exposed the failure of our society and legal system when it comes to recognizing, understanding, punishing and preventing child abuse.  It also shows the power of the Internet to tell a child’s story and reclaim some of the power and dignity taken from her.  Hillary Adams posted the video on October 27.  Less than a month later it had been viewed nearly seven million times on YouTube and via NBC’s Today Show.

Maybe this is the way to end family violence.

Footage of the incident mentioned in the post can be seen on YouTube here, but warning – video is graphic and may be disturbing for viewers. 



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