Constitutional Law

Forcing kids to do household chores with beatings isn't a federal crime, 6th Circuit rules

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An immigrant in Michigan who forced four children from Togo to do household chores with beatings didn’t violate the federal law banning forced labor, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the behavior of Jean Claude Kodjo Toviave was reprehensible and deplorable, but it didn’t violate the forced labor law, report the National Law Journal and

According to the decision (PDF), Toviave brought the four children, all relatives, to the country illegally and forced them to cook, clean, do the laundry, study and occasionally babysit. “Toviave apparently demanded absolute obedience from the children,” the opinion said, “and was quick to beat them. Toviave hit the children with his hands, and with plunger sticks, ice scrapers, and broomsticks, often for minor oversights or violations of seemingly arbitrary rules.”

Toviave wasn’t always cruel, the opinion said. He worked two jobs to support the children, bought them sports equipment, took them on family vacations and hired a tutor to teach them English. Teachers suspected abuse, and the children were removed from Toviave’s home. A search of the home turned up false immigration documents, leading Toviave to plead guilty to mail and visa fraud. He went to trial on the forced labor charge and was convicted.

The court said three points compel its conclusion that Toviave’s treatment of the children was not forced labor. “First,” the court said, “forcing children to do household chores cannot be forced labor without reading the statute as making most responsible American parents and guardians into federal criminals. Second, requiring a child to perform those same chores by means of child abuse does not change the nature of the work. And third, if it did, the forced labor statute would federalize the traditionally state-regulated area of child abuse.”

The 6th Circuit cited the Supreme Court’s June decision in Bond v. United States, which held that a federal law enacted to implement a chemical-weapons treaty didn’t cover the acts of a woman who used chemicals in an attempt to injure a romantic rival. According to the 6th Circuit, Bond “re-emphasized that we should be cautious in inferring congressional intent to criminalize activity traditionally regulated by the states.”

Toviave worked as a janitor at the University of Michigan and was a part-time tennis instructor, according to

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