BARTOW -- Convicted of child abuse earlier this month, Tiffany Augustin claimed she had not disciplined her four children any differently than she was punished as a child and that the corporal punishment she administers is endorsed by the Bible.
On Monday, however, Senior Circuit Judge Oliver Green sentenced Augustin, 31, to four years in prison. Her children said she beat them with bamboo sticks, a belt, shoes, plastic hangers, extension cords and, on one occasion, a fishing pole.
After hearing the sentence, Augustin burst into tears and told her attorney, Assistant Public Defender Brook Hunt, that she wanted to appeal Green's decision.
"I want to file an appeal right now," she told her attorney. "This is wrong."
As she was being led out of the nearly empty courtroom, a visibly shaken Augustin cried out, "Forgive them, Jesus. Forgive them."
According to court records, authorities arrested the Winter Haven woman in November after receiving reports that she had been abusing her four children, who range in age from 10 to 14.
A medical examination concluded that the children, who bore various bruises and scars, had been subjected to excessive corporal punishment.
"Some of the marks appear permanent," the examiner said.
The children told investigators their mother beat them when they spilled something, didn't clean their rooms, stayed out too late or left the house without permission.
But she sometimes beat them for no reason at all or after coming home drunk or high, the children said.
The beatings averaged more than one a week, according to two of the children.
The worst incident happened between May 30 and June 6, 2002, when, according to court records, Augustin came home to find burn marks on her bedroom rug and smelled smoke and lighter fluid inside the house.
The three children who were home at the time denied setting the fire, and Augustin beat them as punishment, records stated.
She used a bamboo switch, plastic hanger and, on at least one of her daughters, a fiberglass fishing rod, reports said. The beatings left scars on two of the children, according to reports.
On June 6, 2002, a Department of Children & Families investigator noticed marks on the children and removed them from Augustin's home. Currently, they live with their grandmother.
Finding that Augustin had intentionally inflicted physical injury on her children, jurors convicted her of four counts of child abuse July 1.
Augustin, whose criminal history includes arrests for forgery, grand theft and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, claimed that she disciplined her children according to the way she was raised and what she believed was right.
"The way I was raised and what I was taught was from the word of God," she said at a hearing last week at which three of her children testified and members of her church spoke on her behalf.
"That's where the way I raise my children comes from," she said. "If that's wrong then I don't know how to be right."
Prosecutors claimed that Augustin showed no remorse for what she had done to her children.
Hunt argued in court filings that Augustin should not receive prison time for her actions because she provided an otherwise stable home for her children and thought the way she was raising them to be right.
"That is the way the defendant was brought up, and that is the way she was bringing up her children," he argued. "Although her actions went beyond what is acceptable, her intentions were correct."
But child abuse experts and Augustin's pastor said the line between physical discipline and child abuse is clear.
When a parent uses an object to spank a child or when the spanking causes bruises or broken bones, it qualifies as abuse, said Annie McPherson, program director of the Child Abuse Prevention Project at the University of Florida.
Just because society once condoned beating children with belts and switches doesn't make such practices right, McPherson said.
Years ago, society also looked the other way when husbands beat their wives, she said.
And, contrary to what Augustin may believe, religion encourages parents to find ways other than physical punishment to discipline their children, said the Rev. Tony L. Bradley of St. John's Missionary Baptist in Winter Haven.
"The Word itself is plain enough about what we need to do," he said. "There's different ways that we can do things as opposed to dealing with a physical whipping. . . . If you want to spank them you spank them in a specific place. . . . One or two licks on the behind should be sufficient to let them know that we're not playing."
Bradley said he attended Augustin's hearing last week to offer his support and his prayers.
But he did not speak on behalf of the woman he said only returned to church 11/2 months ago and whom he thinks has tried to use religion to excuse her actions.
"Sometimes we do things to justify what we do," Bradley said. "(But) society is not dumb."