As we learned last week, social media has the potential to get parents in legal hot water. This week, we continue to explore the impact actions taken online can have on family dynamics.

Buzzfeed news reported this week that the Maryland couple behind the YouTube prank site DaddyOFive were recently sentenced to five years of probation after the parents were charged with two counts each of child neglect.

Controversial YouTube Clips

Michael and Heather Martin made headlines earlier this year when videos of them pranking their children went viral, and the public largely accused the couple of child abuse.

The video that first sparked the controversy was posted in April, 2017 and shows the parents pouring invisible ink on the bedroom of their youngest son and accusing him of making the mess. The video shows the mother screaming obscenities at the son as she blames him for making the mess. The child cries hysterically as he denies the accusation, but the parents continue to shout and call him a liar. The father eventually tells the son “its just a prank bro.”

Shortly after the video went live, it drew enough outrage and criticism that the parents uploaded another clip responding to “the haters”. In it, the parents (with all five of their children in the background) denounce any accusations of child abuse or exploitation of their kids, and argue that people simply “don’t get the humour”.

Philip DeFranco, a popular YouTube commentator, looked deeper into the DaddyOFive channel, and compiled other footage of instances that he believed were concerning from a mental and physical abuse perspective. DeFranco made his own video showing the compiled footage and suggested that the youngest son seemed to be the “target” of the parents, and they regularly pranked him. The additional footage shows, for instance, the son bleeding after being shoved into a bookcase.

After continued backlash, the couple deleted most of their videos and posted one single new one offering an apology, and stating:

We realize that we have made some terrible parenting decisions…[w]e wanted our kids to be happy, and we went about it the wrong way.

The parents claimed that they took down all of the videos to “protect” their family and claimed that DeFranco had instigated an online “witch hunt”.

This did not stop the growing outrage, and the parents were allegedly reported to Child Protective Services Maryland.

Parents Lose Custody

In May 2017, the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office took two of the children (Cody and Emma) away from the parents and placed them in in the custody of their biological mother after she filed an emergency motion for temporary custody.

An investigation was launched and all five children, as well as the parents, underwent psychological evaluation.

In the meantime, the parents retained the services of a PR and crisis management firm, which published a blog post stating that the family seemed to “love each other” but “was in crisis and desperately needed stability and a return to normalcy for the kids”. The firm went on to note that the couple:

…now fully understand that they crossed the line and they describe how what started out as family fun quickly escalated into shock value for the purpose of viewership and subscriptions…[t]hey were caught up in their own characters and popularity – they were blinded by YouTube fame and again, upon reflection, made some very poor decisions

The investigation primarily focused on Cody and Emma, who are the father’s biological children.  It found that they had both suffered “substantial impairments of their mental or psychological ability to function” as a result of the videos.  The evaluations of the three other children, who are the mother’s biological sons, found that they did not suffer from “mental injury” associated with the videos.

Child Neglect

Both parents were charged with child neglect. According to a negotiated plea agreement, the couple entered “Alford Pleas” (a special type of guilty plea that does not necessarily admit a legal wrong, but agrees that prosecutors have sufficient evidence to prove guilt).

The couple are on probation, and according to the terms of that probation, are not allowed to have contact with Cody or Emma, unless permitted by a judge in the ongoing custody matter. They are also not allowed to post any videos of Cody or Emma on social media.  The other two children were not subjects in the criminal case since they had not been found to have been harmed by the videos.

The Frederick County Assistant State’s Attorney has stated that she believes the sentence was “in the best interest of the children”, and that the couple’s psychological evaluations had indicated that they had “an extreme lapse in judgment” but had “no intention to injure the children”. She noted that the Martin’s have since been attending counselling, and have refrained from making and posting any videos. She further added that prosecutors had not wanted the children to have to go through a trial and that the probation sentence “serves everyone’s interest”.

The couple’s defense attorney told the media that the parents were relieved and “fully satisfied” with the outcome of the case, and had learned a lesson. He further noted that:

We’re in a new era with social media…[parents] have to learn the things that are appropriate and not appropriate, particularly with children.

If you have questions about social media and any potential legal and other risks stemming from it, to contact experienced Windsor family lawyer Jason P. Howie at 519-800-1039 or online.  Jason has been a fixture of the family law community of Windsor and Essex County for over 25 years, and has helped hundreds of clients.