In Wisconsin, charges of domestic violence can carry serious penalties, even if the alleged victim later decides to drop the charges. If an arrest has been made, the defendant may still be prosecuted by authorities.

But when an onlooker reports a domestic violence incident, is it possible that they made a mistake? Every family dynamic is different, and sometimes roughhousing and practical jokes can be misinterpreted as abuse.

Earlier this month, a 35-year-old California man was arrested and charged with felony child abuse and endangerment after he allegedly threw his 7-year-old son overboard while they were on a harbor cruise. Witnesses and prosecutors called it child abuse, but the man claims he and his son were just joking around.

According to police reports, the man was on the harbor cruise with his girlfriend and his two sons, ages 6 and 7. Witnesses told police that the defendant was drunk and began to argue loudly with his girlfriend, which reportedly upset his children.

Next, witnesses say, the man allegedly poked his 7-year-old in the chest and slapped his face. According to a sheriff’s department spokesman, the man then picked up his son and said: “If you don’t stop crying, I’m going to throw you overboard.”

The boy was thrown over the side of the boat, and his father jumped in a short time later. The crew of the cruise boat was able to maneuver the vessel in order to protect the young boy while awaiting rescue.

If convicted, the man faces six years in prison. But he contends that it was all a joke. He said: “We were having fun, it was a harbor cruise!” He added: “We jumped in together. We thought it would be funny. We were just screwing around.”

The fact that the defendant was intoxicated will likely be used against him. But he claims he would have acted the same way even if he had been sober.

Was this a case of child abuse or a misunderstood bit of family fun? That question will need to be decided in court, but it is important to remember that to public witnesses, the distinction is not always as clear as they might think.

Source: CNN, “Father charged with abuse for treatment of son on harbor cruise,” Michael Martinez, Sept. 15, 2011

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