Tough Love or Abuse?
Tough Love or Abuse?
Sheriff's sergeant and a school principal are on trial for stern discipline of their teenage son that allegedly escalated into psychological abuse.
By Stuart Pfeifer , Times Staff Writer
Grady and Deborah Machnick were distressed about their teenage son's behavior. His chores went unfinished. His grades were slipping. He stole money from them and shoplifted at the local supermarket.
So the parents took drastic steps.
Grady Machnick, a Los Angeles County sheriff's sergeant, and his wife, an elementary school principal, locked the boy out of the house until he finished his algebra homework. Some nights, they forced him to sleep outside on a dog mat.
When the boy didn't pick up after the family dogs, his stepmother scooped up droppings from the backyard and put them in his backpack before he went to school.
Often, he was excluded from the dinner table, forced to eat leftovers in the kitchen while the rest of the family dined on fresh-cooked meals.
The Machnicks say they did this to discipline a wayward son before he got into even worse trouble. Prosecutors say their actions were not only misguided but also criminal.
The parents went on trial this week in a child-endangerment case the likes of which prosecutors say they've never seen before. Most child abuse involves sudden, violent acts. This case focuses on what Orange County authorities describe as premeditated psychological cruelty.
Essentially, the Machnicks are accused of going overboard in their efforts to curb their son's behavior — efforts that, by their account, began with "positive reinforcement" and other steps right out of a parenting self-help book. Implicitly, the case asks the justice system to define when parental tough love veers into criminality.
The Machnicks are charged with misdemeanor child endangerment and felony conspiracy. If convicted of both offenses, they could each be sentenced to up to three years in prison. Jury selection began Wednesday in Superior Court in Newport Beach.
The couple, who have pleaded not guilty, do not dispute many of the allegations, though they deny ever physically harming the boy, now a 16-year-old high school junior. When authorities confronted them last year, the parents insisted that there was a constructive purpose behind the punishments they devised.
"One of my biggest regrets is I was unable to find a form of behavior modification that would work," Grady Machnick said in a written statement released by his attorney, John Barnett. The boy "has great potential but simply would not obey school or home rules."