Child Abuse

Child abuse and neglect are emotional or physical harms caused to a child or minor.

In this section, you will find information about identifying, preventing, and intervening in child abuse. Use the menus below to navigate to the most relevant topic, or scroll down to keep reading about child abuse basics and legal information.

The sections below include the following topics:

  • Definition of child abuse
  • Types of child abuse
  • Signs of child abuse
  • Laws and resources that address child abuse cases

Definition of Child Abuse

In general, a child is anyone under the "age of majority." In most states, the child age of majority is 18 years old.

Child abuse and neglect are emotional or physical harms caused to a child. The abuse can also be in the form of sexual exploitation or sexual abuse. These types of harm place the child's life at risk and can result in physical injury or even death. Experiencing child abuse or neglect can, undoubtedly, affect a child's mental health into their teen and adult years.

Child abuse and neglect happen from the act or omission of a child's parent or caregiver. An omission is a failure to appropriately act. For example, omissions that could be classified as child abuse or neglect include a failure to provide medical treatment or basic needs for the child. Each state has a minimum standard for defining child abuse and neglect. The abusive or neglectful act the perpetrator commits or omits can be classified. This will determine whether the abuser will be subject to criminal proceedings, civil proceedings, or both. Each state's laws address both criminal and civil liability depending on the act or omission the perpetrator is accused of as well as their intent.

If you want to learn more about child maltreatment or are looking for ways to protect children from abuse, check out the FindLaw Family Law Center.

Types of Child Abuse

Child abuse and neglect come in different forms. Here are the five major types of child abuse and neglect:

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse happens when a child is purposely exposed to a risk of harm or injury. Examples of physical abuse include hitting, shaking, or kicking the child. Exerting force against the child is also physical abuse under many state child abuse laws.

Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse is any sexual activity done against a child. Fondling, oral-to-genital contact, or sexual intercourse are some examples of sexual contact. Sexual abuse can also be through non-physical contact. This can include exposing the child to pornography or sexual activity, filming the child in a lewd manner, child prostitution, or sex trafficking the child.

Emotional Abuse

Emotional harm attacks the child's emotional well-being and damages the child's self-worth. Verbal assaults against the child are emotional abuse. Other examples include belittling, ignoring, rejecting, or isolating the child.

Medical Abuse

Medical abuse happens when someone commits medical neglect or provides false information about a child's illness. In this case, the child's welfare is at risk. For an example of medical abuse, suppose a child ingests an illegal substance brought into the home by the caregiver. Further, suppose that the child receives delayed or improper medical care after the caregiver fails to provide truthful information about what the child ingested or their symptoms. Unnecessary medical care, due to untruthful reporting of the child's symptoms, is also an example of medical abuse. Criminal charges can be issued against the persons responsible for such acts.


Child neglect occurs when the parent or caretaker of the child fails to provide for the child's basic needs. Neglect can occur due to the caregiver's failure to provide the child with healthcare, shelter, clothing, or adequate food. It can also be the failure to provide supervision, affection, education, and necessary dental or medical care.

If you suspect a child is in serious danger or would like to report child abuse, notify the proper authorities immediately. You can also call a child abuse hotline for advice at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453). The local or state department of family services, also called child protective services, will investigate reports of abuse or neglect. They will also assess children's health and well-being.

Common Signs of Child Abuse

A child experiencing abuse—or being at risk of experiencing serious harm—may feel ashamed, confused, or guilty. The child may also feel too scared to inform anyone about the abuse. This is often the case if the abuser is a parent, a family member, or a caretaker.

Red flags that are crucial to pay attention to may include:

  • Changes in the child's behavior, such as increased anger, aggression, hyperactivity, or hostility
  • Changes in school performance
  • Withdrawal from usual activities and friends
  • Anxiety, depression, unusual fears, or sudden loss of confidence
  • Frequent school absences
  • Obvious supervision deficiency
  • Defiant or rebellious behavior
  • Attempts to self-harm or suicide

Signs of child abuse and neglect may vary. Exhibited signs depend on the type of abuse and the act recently committed against the child. Take note that the list only contains warning signs. The presence or absence of a red flag is not definitive evidence that the child is experiencing abuse. Be aware that children with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to abuse or neglect and a child with special needs may have difficulty verbalizing what they have experienced.

Child Abuse Laws and Resources

All states have state laws and resources to protect children from neglect and abuse. There are also law enforcement agencies and social services that address this issue. These human services agencies give protection and shelter to abused children. Some enacted policies are the following:

  • Responding to and investigating complaints of child neglect and abuse
  • Maintaining records of child neglect and abuse
  • Protecting the child from domestic violence or illegal substance use in the home
  • Ensuring that referrals made to the child's caregiver are followed through with (such as parenting classes, counseling, or other parenting resources)

According to the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) the definitions of child abuse may vary in each state. However, certain providers must report a suspicion of child abuse. Teachers and pediatricians, typically, are mandatory reporters.

In each jurisdiction, there are laws to assist with early intervention in child abuse. There are also laws to assist with promoting awareness of child abuse. These laws make the process of reporting child abuse easy. The person who reports the abuse is also protected by the state.

Getting Legal Help

Contact the Childhelp National Abuse Hotline, at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453), for a reference in child abuse cases. CAPTA also provides information about cases of child abuse and neglect.

Local Departments of Social Services (or Family and Children's Services) also provide help and information about child abuse and neglect. They work with law enforcement officers, who will check on the child's health and welfare. Anyone with concerns about a child's welfare can request a welfare check with law enforcement, even if the child is currently in foster care.

If you or someone you know needs legal assistance, FindLaw offers a directory of family law attorneys near you.

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