The legality and safety of using hot sauce on children are issues that Washington area child protective services officers have considered carefully, though no local jurisdictions have initiated legal action against a parent for using hot sauce.

In Virginia, administering hot sauce to a child meets the state's "validity requirement" -- its definition of an event that may trigger an investigation.

When an investigation is launched, the investigation itself does not necessarily lead to a finding of abuse, said Betty Jo Zarris, manager of Virginia's child protective services program. Other relevant factors could include the age of the child, the amount of hot sauce used, the force used to restrain the child to get the hot sauce into his or her mouth, and the length of time the hot sauce was left on the tongue.

Zarris said that, based on the reports of doctors the agency has consulted, the use of hot sauce "is a bad idea."

District statutes do not address use of hot sauce on a child's tongue, and the practice is not illegal. Nor would hot saucing on its own be considered child abuse, according to Mindy Good, public information officer for the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency. Despite the lack of a law prohibiting it, "we don't recommend it," she said.

Maryland law also contains no prohibition against hot sauce as discipline, said Steve Barry, manager of Maryland's In-Home Family Services office. A single report "might not be enough to open an investigation, but [we] would [then] ask questions which would determine whether or not to open an investigation," he said.

One key issue is the age of the child, he said. "Most of our staff would reason that if [hot sauce] was done on a kid up to age 5, that would get a more serious reaction from us than with an older child. [Younger] children . . . have a harder time protecting themselves."

Lisa Whelchel, author of "Creative Correction," who defends the use of hot sauce, said she was unaware that the practice could invite a visit from authorities. In a section of her book on spanking, she does advise that parents consult their state's guidelines on physical punishment.

Whelchel, who is revising the book for a new edition, said she may submit the manuscript to a child welfare worker to look for red flags.

-- Alison Buckholtz