Should locking kids up be considered child abuse?

In June 2014, a Georgia couple was found to have locked up their 13-year-old son in the basement. When child protection workers investigated, they found the boy locked in a small room with a mattress, a box spring and a bucket for a toilet; it had no light, no books, no toys or television. The parents said they had placed him there for disciplinary reasons. He showed no signs of physical abuse or malnutrition, yet the parents were charged with child cruelty and false imprisonment.

During my twenty years as a lawyer, I have visited juvenile prisons in a number of states. The typical cell in a hardware secure correctional institution contains a stiff slab of metal or concrete topped with a thin plastic “mattress” for a bed, a metal toilet with attached sink, and limited lighting — all behind a locked hard metal door. In many instances personal items are not allowed. Kids can be held in such facilities for years (many average 30 months or 2.5 years). If it’s considered child cruelty when parents lock up their own children at home, why isn’t it similarly cruel when a state does it?

In the case of the Georgia couple, their son claimed that the infraction for which he was being punished was that he stole a DVD and then lied about it. He had been locked in a room for more than a year. In juvenile correctional facilities across the country, 75% of kids have done nothing violent. Many youth are locked up for status offenses – acts that would not be crimes if they were adults (such as underage drinking, or being absent from school).

So where should we draw the line? Where does appropriate consequence end and cruelty begin? Should the difference be the nature of the offense (whether a crime was committed), or should it depend on whether it was violent? Or should retribution be based on something else, and if so what?

Adrian Peterson was indicted for hitting his 4-year-old with a switch, but in juvenile facilities across the country teenagers are held in isolation for days at a time in the name of “punishment.” Both seem extreme, and yet one is considered a crime and the other is authorized. Is it fair that a state carry the child protection badge in one hand while passing judgment on how parents discipline, but then hold themselves to different criteria? Where’s the logic? It is clear that we are long overdue for a conversation about punishment – both for parents, and by the state.

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Join the discussion at

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at

The photos below are of a typical juvenile prison cell taken by photographer Richard Ross (“Juvenile in Justice”)

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