WOBURN, Mass. -- He knows it sounds like a tall tale. But Donald Cobble insists that as a child he never, ever sassed his father.
"Had I done it, he probably would've knocked me into the middle of next week," said the 37-year-old pastor, who grew up in Alabama and now lives in Woburn. "I was raised by somebody who meant business."
Now, the Rev. Cobble is the no-nonsense father who doles out an old-fashioned whipping -- belt and all -- when his 11-year-old son, Judah, steps out of line.
What the Rev. Cobble says is his God-given right and responsibility, the state has labeled child abuse. Yet months after the Massachusetts Department of Social Services said it substantiated allegations against the Rev. Cobble, it unexpectedly dropped the case.
Now, the Christian missionary says he's on a quest to change the way the state deals with parents who use corporal punishment.
"Here's an agency that has liberty to do what they want with no repercussions," the Rev. Cobble said. "It is my responsibility as Judah's parent to use corporal punishment if need be. ... It is a clear biblical prescription."
After investigating a complaint from teachers at Judah's elementary school in Peabody, DSS officials concluded in March 1997 that the Rev. Cobble's actions constituted physical abuse. The agency recommended that the Rev. Cobble should not be left alone with his son until the boy turns 18 and should agree in writing not to spank Judah again.
The Rev. Cobble refused. Three months later, DSS closed the case.
"When they said, 'Are you going to continue to spank him?' I said that if the need arises, I will," the Rev. Cobble recalled.
DSS defines abuse as "the nonaccidental commission of any act by a caretaker upon a child under age 18 which causes or creates a substantial risk of physical or emotional injury."
Citing privacy concerns, the department wouldn't say exactly why it dropped the case, but it indicated that the child was considered to no longer be at risk.
"Families have to work with us," said spokesman David Van Dam. "If they refuse, and we don't feel there's imminent danger, we would close the case."
Corporal punishment is not illegal under Massachusetts law. But the line between discipline and abuse lies at the discretion of DSS workers.
The Rev. Cobble believes he was singled out by the agency because of the private views of social workers, not because of concern for his son's safety.
"They told me it's not illegal, but that the behavior is not acceptable in this state," the Rev. Cobble said. "There is clearly an unwritten law in their minds that they don't accept spanking. ... I transgressed their unwritten, personal law."
Indeed, the report substantiating allegations of abuse states that the "father reports that he is from Alabama, and that 'whipping' a child with a belt is an accepted manner of discipline. However, in the family's current location and circumstances such use of discipline does place the child at risk of physical hurt/harm, and is not acceptable."
The trouble began when the Rev. Cobble received a note from a teacher saying that Judah, who has Attention Deficit Disorder, according to his father, had acted up in school.
"He had been disobedient and rebellious to her," the Rev. Cobble recalled. "Based on my biblical views, rebellion's a pretty serious issue. So he got a spanking."
Weeks later, when Judah got into trouble with the teacher again, he told her it would mean another spanking from his father. She alerted school authorities, who called DSS. The agency conducted an investigation and found the allegations were supported.
Mr. Van Dam had no statistics to show how many DSS cases deemed "supported" are closed without further action.
But Deborah Daro, research director of the Chicago-based National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, said such a disposition is not uncommon. Because of limited manpower at the nation's social service agencies, she said, even among confirmed abuse cases some 30 percent to 40 percent of families don't receive "meaningful" state services.
The Rev. Cobble's views on corporal punishment were shaped partly by his experience as a boy in Auburn, Ala., where he was spanked at home with a belt and at school with a wooden paddle.
At age 9, he recalled, he and a cousin took money found in his aunt's couch and spent it on candy. The punishment?
"She smoked our ends with a switch," he said. "We were singing a new song then."
The Rev. Cobble attended college at the Rhema Bible Training Center in Oklahoma. After serving as an assistant pastor in Massachusetts and Florida, he became a missionary, traveling to Romania, India and Latvia.
Now associate pastor at the revivalist Christian Teaching and Worship Center in Woburn, the Rev. Cobble has taken Judah out of public school and hired a home-school teacher. After divorcing his wife, Lisa, last year, the Rev. Cobble has primary custody of his son since a divorce last year.
He said he may take legal action against DSS to try to recover $15,000 in legal expenses. He also wants to work with legislators to try to rein in the agency's power.
"Spare the rod, spoil the child," he said, quoting Scripture.