In family photos, the Kuckartz kids – all eight of them – are always smiling.
Their parents, Joshua and Aimee Kuckartz, are always smiling, too, which is some feat when you have eight kids, all under age 13, three who are adopted special needs children.
“They’re just a great family,” says Lisa Torraco, an attorney and one of New Mexico’s newest state senators. “They are all about the kids. The parents are just the warmest, gentlest people you can imagine.”
The parents are also, in the eyes of the law, criminal suspects.
Their crime, if you can call it that, is the way they discipline their children, which includes the usual timeouts, extra chores, lecturing and, yes, spanking with a belt and a cold shower.
It was the latter two methods – which Rio Rancho police say resulted in a bruise and a broken leg for one child – that brought the family to the authorities’ attention 16 months ago.
Their case has reignited the emotional debate over where to draw the line between parental discipline and abuse, and when the law should step in to protect a child and when its interference traumatizes the child.
“Parenting is a fundamental right,” said Torraco, who is representing both parents in their separate legal cases. “We should not have to worry that the law will barge in to damage our children, destroy our reputations, call us criminals because it overzealously questions our judgment as parents on how to reasonably raise our children. I don’t want the government in our personal lives telling us how to parent.”
But District Attorney Lemuel Martinez, whose 13th Judicial District office is prosecuting the Kuckartzes, said the case goes beyond basic parenting.
“Our office draws the line within the confines of the law,” he said. “In order for us to prosecute a case as child abuse, it has to endanger the health and welfare of a child. It has to go beyond corporal punishment.”
Torraco said her clients did not go beyond corporal punishment – physical discipline such as spanking – and that her clients resorted to using a belt or cold shower only when nothing else worked.
And there had been times when nothing else worked, especially with the Kuckartzes’ two adopted girls, both diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder, or RAD, characterized by early aggression, anti-social behaviors and an inability to form normal bonds. RAD is common among children adopted from neglectful, horrible homes.
“When we adopted the kids, we had no training on RAD,” said Aimee Kuckartz, a former educator of special needs children who home-schools all but one son, who has autism and is intellectually disabled. “I know how to handle children with other disabilities, but not this. It’s hard. We had no idea what we were getting into. But we have worked hard to figure out what works.”
The incident that started the Kuckartzes’ problems involved one of their RAD girls, then 6, on Sept. 11, 2011, a long time ago in family years. According to a Rio Rancho police report, officers were called to the University of New Mexico Hospital after a nurse became suspicious of a small U-shaped bruise on their daughter’s lower back and the cause of the girl’s leg fracture.
Although initially the girl told authorities she had slipped while taking a shower and could not recall how she obtained the bruise, it was later determined that she had been out of control, jumping on a bed and banging on the wall and would not stop when her father ordered her to and then spanked her with a belt, according to the police report.
Her father took her into the bathroom and tried to place her into the cold shower to calm down. The girl’s mother then took hold of the girl and stepped into the shower with the child, who continued to struggle until she either wriggled free or was thrown down, depending on whom you ask.
The parents then called a relative to watch the other children and rushed the girl to the emergency room at UNMH.
Sixteen months later, a lot of trauma, a lot of anxiety, a lot of therapy and thousands of dollars in lawyer bills later, the Kuckartzes have still not had their day in court – Aimee Kuckartz for the shower incident, Joshua Kuckartz for the spanking.
A trial scheduled for today for Joshua Kuckartz in Bernalillo was postponed, as was Aimee Kuckartz’s trial, set just days before Christmas. Reasons for the postponements were not clear.
“It’s a complete nightmare,” Aimee Kuckartz said. “It’s caused a lot of anxiety in the children. They want to know if the judge has made it all go away yet. They are terrified of losing us. We are terrified of even saying boo to the children. It feels helpless.”
I’m not a big fan of cold showers and belts, but I also know that sometimes we parents, especially those of us who have children with RAD and other behavioral disorders, have to resort to some pretty tough tactics to reach them. It’s not abusive; it’s the best we can sometimes come up with in the heat of a terrifying moment.
The law provides leeway for this.
“In New Mexico, a parent has a privilege to use moderate or reasonable physical force, without criminal liability, when engaged in the discipline of his or her child,” our Court of Appeals has held, most notably in a 2005 case known as State v. Lefevre.
Sixteen months have passed since the shower incident. Bones have healed, the family is healing together, lessons have been learned. The children are still smiling.
All of that hangs in the balance, depending on what happens with the court cases, which so far have not been rescheduled.
DA Martinez said his prosecutors seek not a conviction but justice.
Maybe justice, in this case, is to leave this family alone.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal