(CN) - A Togolese man who forced his young relatives to clean the floors, wash the dishes, cook food and do the laundry - and often beat them for minor infractions - cannot be prosecuted for subjecting the children to forced labor, the 6th Circuit ruled.
"Child abuse is a state crime, but not a federal crime. Forced labor is a federal crime, but the statute obviously does not extend to requiring one's children to do their homework, babysit on occasion, and do household chores," the 11-page opinion begins.
Jean Claude Kodjo Toviave brought four young relatives from his native Togo to live with him in Michigan, including his younger sister and two cousins.
In their new home, Toviave required the children to cook, clean, do laundry, serve his guests, iron his clothes, and clean his car. He also occasionally made them babysit for the women he was dating.
"Toviave apparently demanded absolute obedience from the children and was quick to beat them," according to the judgment. "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. For example, Gaele testified that Toviave hit her in the face for using loose-leaf paper rather than a notebook to do her homework, and Kossiwa recounted an incident where Toviave hit her with a broomstick for throwing a utensil in the sink."
But Toviave also supported the children by working two jobs, bought them sports equipment, hired a tutor to teach them English, and took them on family trips. Many of his punishments stemmed from his dissatisfaction with their performance at school, and he even created additional assignments for them to complete after their homework.
Their teachers eventually suspected the children were being abused, and the children were removed from the home.
Toviave pled guilty to visa fraud, and was eventually convicted on four counts of forced labor.
But the 6th Circuit overturned the federal forced labor convictions on Monday.
"Although Toviave's treatment of the children was reprehensible, it was not forced labor," Judge Judith Rogers said, writing for the three-judge panel. "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."
Requiring a child to perform chores under the threat of child abuse "does not change the nature of the work," the court said, otherwise child abuse could be prosecuted as a federal crime.
And although he was abusive, Toviave did not ask the children to do anything "beyond what a parent or guardian can expect from his child," Rogers said.
In addition, the children were not kept isolated like most victims of forced labor, even if they were not allowed to attend sleepovers or freely use the phone - they attended school, played soccer, and were actively encouraged to improve their English skills.
"The line between required chores and forced labor may be a fine one in some circumstances, but that cannot mean that all household chores are forced labor, with only the discretion of prosecutors protecting thoughtful parents from federal prosecution. The facts of this case fall on the chores side of the line," the court concluded.