05/08/2006 01:33 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Hell is For Children

We now know how 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson died--and it isn't pretty. The results of the second autopsy of the boy who died in a Florida boot camp came in Friday

Apparently, Anderson was suffocated. Believing him to be "resisting" their efforts to discipline him by faking unconsciousness, boot camp guards shoved ammonia in his face. His lungs spasmed. Because the guards held their hands and/or the ammonia over his mouth and nose for too long, the boy's brain was deprived of oxygen. Boot camp staff still maintain that they did nothing wrong because they were permitted to use "pain compliance" on those who defied them.

For some reason, it is perfectly legal to use potentially deadly force against youth in this country for whatever reason those responsible for their care choose to do so. The Eighth Amendment-- which bars cruel and unusual punishment--apparently does not apply to people under 18.

Although the Supreme Court ruled in a 1982 case that agencies acting "under color of state law" may not use disciplinary tactics like dragging kids by their hair, isolating them and beating them, that decision did not keep private programs which don't serve court or school-mandated youth from using such tactics. It is only the state--not corporations or families--which is not allowed to use "cruel and unusual" punishments.

For adults, force is only allowed to be used on citizens if they are a threat to themselves or others--even if they are in prison or a psychiatric hospital (and even on death row, until the sentence is being carried out).

But for children, there are apparently no rules--especially not in the state of Florida. It had made a special legal exception to allow "pain compliance" in its youth correctional boot camps--permitting ammonia, punches, kicks and "pressure points" (painful pressure to the head).

These were applied completely indiscriminately--as in Anderson's case, for simply saying that he had difficulty breathing and couldn't complete required exercise. Nearly 200 use-of-force reports demonstrate that mere noncompliance was enough to provoke attack. Whether that holds up as legal use-of-force in court will no doubt be determined as the parents' case against the state goes forward.

Now, I recognize that politicians are afraid of interfering with parental decisions about spanking and discipline and that that debate has gone on for centuries. But surely we can all agree that parents should not be allowed to outsource physical discipline to institutions or government agencies?

After all, one reason we allow parents to discipline their children is because we assume that they generally have their best interests in mind. The opposite presumption holds for institutions, which have their own goals like making profits (or cutting costs) and keeping order.

I know many Americans are not prepared to rule out the use of torture for terrorist suspects--or even to ban spanking by parents. But how about outlawing corporal punishment of children in residential programs? Can anyone really argue in favor of it? Any legislators want to take this on?