Court: No federal crime beating kids who spurn chores

A federal panel has ruled that, while deplorable, it’s not a federal crime to beat children for not doing “chores.”

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the conviction of Jean Claude Kodjo Toviave, who is raising the four children of a woman he convinced to illegally emigrate from Togo to Michigan, so the children could work for him.

According to the decision, Toviave beat the children if they didn’t complete their chores, which included babysitting for women he dated. But the judges said that doesn’t convert what is essentially child abuse into a federal crime of forced labor.

Toviave apparently demanded absolute obedience from the children and was quick to beat them. Toviave hit the children with his hands, and with plunger sticks, ice scrapers, and broomsticks, often for minor oversights or violations of seemingly arbitrary rules. For example, Gaele testified that Toviave hit her in the face for using loose-leaf paper rather than a notebook to do her homework, and Kossiwa recounted an incident where Toviave hit her with a broomstick for throwing a utensil in the sink.

The children were responsible for different household chores. Toviave made the children cook, clean, and do the laundry. He also made the children pack up the house when the family moved to a new apartment, serve food to Toviave’s guests, iron Toviave’s clothes, and clean his van. Toviave also occasionally made the children babysit for the women he was dating, or for his relatives.

Toviave was not always cruel, however. He provided for the children by working two jobs, and also did yard work. Toviave bought the children sports equipment and let them play soccer. The children also participated in some recreational activities with Toviave: they exercised with him and went on family trips together.

Toviave also put significant emphasis on education; many of his punishments appear to have stemmed from problems related to schoolwork. He hired a tutor to teach the children English. He also imposed mandatory study periods: the children had to be at the kitchen studying at 5:30 a.m. on school days. The children always attended school, and Toviave even created extra assignments and drills for the children to complete when they finished their school assignments.

“An American parent has always had the right to make his child perform household chores,” the judges said.

The government’s interpretation of 18 U.S.C. § 1589 would make a federal crime of the exercise of these innocuous, widely accepted parental rights. Take a hypothetical parent who requires his child to take out the garbage, make his bed, and mow the lawn. The child is quarrelsome and occasionally refuses to do his chores.

In response, the child’s parent sternly warns the child, and if the child still refuses, spanks him. The child then goes about doing his chores. There is no principled way to distinguish between that sort of hypothetical labor and what Toviave made the children do in this case. Both the tasks assigned to the child by the hypothetical parent and the duties assigned by Toviave are “labor” in the economic sense of the word: one could, and people often do, pay employees to perform these types of domestic tasks.

But it has always been true that parents can make their children perform this kind of work. The forced labor statute could not have been intended to overturn this longstanding parental right. Indeed, the Supreme Court has long recognized that the Thirteenth Amendment “was not intended to apply to ‘exceptional’ cases well established in the common law at the time of the Thirteenth Amendment, such as ‘the right of parents and guardians to the custody of their minor children or wards.’”

It is true that Toviave sometimes made the children babysit, and kept the money. But requiring one’s child to babysit for a girlfriend is not beyond the bounds of what a guardian can reasonably expect from his child.

The judges said while there have been forced labor violations when children were brought to the United States to work and then cheated out of their pay, in this case the children were brought to the U.S. for an education.

“The line between required chores and forced labor may be a fine one in some circumstances, but that cannot mean that all household chores are forced labor, with only the discretion of prosecutors protecting thoughtful parents from federal prosecution,” the judges said.

Here’s the full opinion.