After she was released from jail following a whipping she said was done out of loving concern for her children, Schaquana Evita Spears came home to an empty house.
The 30-year-old single mother of six — who was locked up Tuesday after she admitted to striking three of her sons with a cord because they broke a neighbor’s window and stole items — said in a brief interview Wednesday morning at her doorstep that she was on her way to a courthouse to try to regain custody of her youngsters, who were with their grandmother.
Her eyes welling with tears, the New Orleans native said she needed to see her children before she could talk. When she returned home that evening, her companion told a reporter Spears did not want to speak to anyone.
Meantime, a chorus of her defenders from across the U.S. grew louder Wednesday, as current and former public officials, as well as online readers, argued that Spears was justified in doing what many parents have done for generations — use physical discipline when children deserve a harsh lesson.
Some child welfare experts pushed back, saying corporal punishment can have damaging psychological effects on young lives.
It was a stranger, local bail bondswoman Winter Applewhite, who noticed Spears’ story and paid for her release, explaining that she’d been shown mercy when her own 16-year-old son was spared in a recent car accident.
“I just felt like I should help her because I owe God. I can’t repay him enough, but I know I owe him,” said Applewhite, who owns Come Get Me Bailbonding in Baton Rouge.
Even 19th Judicial District Judge Anthony Marabella appeared to give Spears’ case another look, by lowering her bail from $2,500 to $1,000 and allowing Spears to be released on her own recognizance, meaning she didn’t have to pay anything to be released on her child cruelty counts. Applewhite paid a fee Spears owed on an unrelated City Court matter.
Spears’ arrest on two counts of cruelty to juveniles prompted some politicians, including state Treasurer John Kennedy, to join the conversation.
“I bet those boys won’t be burglarizing other homes any time soon though,” Kennedy wrote Tuesday on his Facebook account, referring to Spears’ choice of discipline.
Former Metairie-area state Sen. Julie Quinn, a lawyer, offered to provide Spears’ legal defense pro bono and said in a Facebook post that Spears’ arrest was “absurd.”
“While I am generally against corporal punishment as a rule, there are times when it is appropriate and understandable — as in here. She is trying to do the best she can, that I can assure you,” Quinn wrote.
But child welfare advocates and mental health experts said Wednesday that the scientific data show that corporal punishment isn’t the best way to discipline children and often leads to negative long-term outcomes for children.
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Indeed, the law against cruelty to juveniles is not specific about where the line is between discipline and abuse, said East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar C. Moore III, whose office would handle Spears’ criminal charges, if they are prosecuted. The law bars “criminally negligent mistreatment” and “unjustifiable pain or suffering.”
Moore pointed to case law indicating that “reasonable” discipline of a child by a parent can be a factor when considering whether punishment rises to a criminal level.
Spears’ 13-year-old son was evaluated by personnel with the state Department of Children and Family Services at the juvenile detention facility, according to an East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s office report. Spears said her son wound up there in relation to the burglary. Juvenile justice officials said they could not comment about the child’s case.
The 13-year-old, Spears’ eldest, had bleeding wounds, and her 12-year-old son received cuts that broke the skin, while the 10-year-old boy had a scratch to his hand, the report says.
DCFS spokeswoman Catherine Heitman said child welfare agents follow the Louisiana Children’s Code and DCFS policy in evaluating how to help a child, including whether law enforcement should be notified. Child welfare agents, she said, collaborate with medical professionals and law enforcement officials to validate findings about a child’s injuries, but do not determine whether crimes were committed.
Heitman emphasized that she was not speaking about any specific case.
Her colleague, DCFS Baton Rouge regional administrator Linda Carter, said that when evaluating possible child abuse, child welfare agents typically decide to call law enforcement only in the most serious cases, which might include ones in which there are multiple injuries or pain inflicted by an instrument.
“There is a fine line between corporal punishment and abuse,” Carter said. “In these cases, the judge is the final decider of whether the kid stays in the home.”
Heitman says DCFS does not have a diversion program, such as family counseling, that would offer an alternative to the arrest of a parent accused of cruelty. In some instances, she said, a judge can order a defendant to attend parenting classes at an independent family resource center that contracts with the state.
As of Wednesday night, Spears’ crowdfunding account had raised $100 of the $300 she set as a goal.