Child Abuse Overview

Child abuse is broadly defined as any act or omission that harms a child or creates a substantial risk of harm to a child. Child abuse can take the form of physical, mental, or emotional harm. It can include endangerment, abandonment, neglect, or sexual abuse. 

The more severe the abuse or neglect, the more severe the penalties. Child abuse that causes serious bodily injury to a child or involves sexual assault will result in felony charges and a likely prison sentence. Criminal charges for leaving a child home alone, when no physical injury occurs, may well be a first-degree misdemeanor offense with a lesser penalty.

Child abuse allegations may be investigated by law enforcement officers or a local child protection agency. Each state has its own protocols on how police and child protection workers cooperate and prioritize their services. Law enforcement can respond immediately to 911 calls and use arrest powers to remove an abuser and bring criminal charges. Child protection agencies can investigate reports of maltreatment and take action to remove children from unsafe or unhealthy environments. They can also file actions in family court. This combination of criminal prohibitions, investigations, and protective social services forms the basis of the child welfare system.

Laws related to child abuse vary from state to state. Therefore, the names of the criminal offenses that constitute child abuse may differ based on where you live.

One major hurdle to stopping child abuse is the difficulty of uncovering it. Like domestic violence, child abuse was often treated as a "family matter" in the past. So, it was under-reported to law enforcement. Often a child's parent did not want to report on their spouse or significant other. That's why states enacted mandatory reporting requirements for certain professions. These laws apply primarily to people who have regular contact with children or who are most likely to discover abuse or neglect. This includes teachers, daycare workers, doctors, nurses, and social workers.

Child Abuse as a Crime

Child abuse crimes vary by name and definition from state to state. But generally, a child abuse crime will include the following:

  • The victim must be a child (usually, a minor under 18 years old)
  • There must be culpability or another appropriate mental state (acting purposefully, knowingly, or recklessly)
  • There must be an action or omission to act
  • The act must cause harm or a substantial risk of harm; this may include physical, emotional, or sexual harm or abuse
  • For child neglect, there may need to be a duty of care (from a parent, family member, or adult caregiver acting in place of a parent)

Criminal penalties depend on the specific nature of the conduct and other factors, including the age of the child and the level of harm. Typical defenses include claims that the allegations are false, that the injury was accidental, or that the conduct was within parents' right to discipline their children as they see fit.

State penal codes will normally identify and define crimes of child sexual abuse, sexual contact, child pornography, and sexual exploitation separately from child abuse. Crimes involving sex offenders often carry a presumption of prison time. States may often provide a life sentence for a sexual assault when the victim is a child under a specified year of age. Due to the serious nature of these charges, police departments typically conduct the investigation. Yet, the first report of sexual abuse may occur during a child protection services investigation.

Laws related to child abuse and neglect continue to adapt. States regularly update them. For example, many state and federal laws have recently moved to consider female genital mutilation a form of child abuse.

When law enforcement officers bring criminal charges for child abuse or neglect against an adult, the case will proceed through the criminal courts. When the alleged abuser is a minor, the case may proceed in juvenile court. The state will seek a court finding that the juvenile is delinquent based on violations of child abuse laws. An adult criminal defendant and a juvenile offender both have the right to a criminal defense attorney. If they are unable to afford an attorney, the court may appoint one for them.

A special concern in any case with a child victim will be the victim's well-being while the case is pending. Courts may issue no-contact orders. Police and prosecutors may also try to minimize the number of interviews of a child victim ahead of trial.

Child Protective Services

All states have a network of agencies that form the child welfare system. The passage and subsequent amendments of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974 (CAPTA) continue to provide funds and leadership to efforts to stop child abuse. CAPTA is a federal law that provides funding to state systems that offer prevention, investigation, and enforcement services. The federal government also funds family intervention, foster care, and adoption services.

Within the child welfare system, child protective services agencies regularly conduct investigations into the vast number of reports of child abuse or neglect. They may interview the child, other family members, and the person that reported the abuse or neglect. They will take steps to verify any incident of physical abuse or neglect. They may refer the child for medical care. Investigators assess the living conditions and mental health of the child. They can review health care records and talk to other service providers.

If it appears to government social workers that there's an imminent danger in the home, the agency may take the child from the parent's custody. They may seek a court order to place the child in foster care until it becomes clear that the home environment is safe. Often, in cases of neglect, the court will order the parent to work with the child protection agency on a safe reunification plan for the family.

In extreme cases of child mistreatment, the child protection agency may seek assistance from a court to terminate parental rights. When this happens, the child may be placed for permanent adoption.

Mandatory Reporting Laws

Every state has enacted mandatory reporting laws regarding child abuse and neglect. Most states require that people in certain professions must report known or suspected child abuse. New Jersey and Wyoming require all persons to report child abuse and neglect. Often, your state or local human services agency can tell you what professions or individuals must report child abuse or neglect in your state.

At the national level, the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline provides crisis counseling and referral services. Mandatory reporting laws have helped dramatically increase the number of calls and referrals to child protection agencies and police. This has raised awareness and taken the stigma out of reporting these crimes.

Mandatory reporting laws commonly apply to individuals such as:

  • Teachers
  • Doctors
  • Nurses
  • Social workers
  • Clergy members
  • Childcare workers
  • Lawyers
  • Law enforcement officers

To protect individuals who make good faith reports, state laws often include confidentiality for the reporter. Some states also provide that a mandatory reporter can't be sued if they turn out to be in error. In many states, failure to report child abuse is also a criminal misdemeanor punishable by fines, jail time, or both.

If you suspect that someone is abusing or neglecting a child, visit FindLaw's How to Get Help for Child Abuse section for more information on what to do.

Need Help With Child Abuse Laws? Call a Local Attorney

Child abuse cases are a serious matter and there are acts that clearly constitute abuse. However, there can be gray areas where the law isn't always clear. If you're being criminally investigated for suspected abuse of a child, you should consider a confidential consultation with a criminal defense lawyer near you. They can help you get a better idea of how the law applies to your situation.

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