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Details on State Child Abuse Laws

Child abuse is a crime that includes neglect, abandonment, and exploitation of a child; and physical, emotional, or sexual abuse by a parent or other caretaker. Failure to get proper medical care for your child also is considered a form of abuse in most states. The vast majority of child abuse cases reported in the United States are for neglect . Sexual abuse is the least-common type of reported child abuse. Since this crime victimizes the most vulnerable in our society, often with lifelong repercussions, most states have stiff penalties for violators.

How State Laws Define Child Abuse

There is not much difference in how states define the crime of child abuse (including neglect and abandonment). Most state laws require the presence of the following three elements in order to convict an alleged child abuser:

  1. An act (or failure to act) results in an imminent risk of serious harm to the health and welfare of a child;
  2. The act (or failure to act) affects a minor;
  3. The act was committed by a parent or another caregiver responsible for the child's welfare.

An act of child abuse must be intentional, such as inflicting extreme physical pain (beyond a mere spanking) or allowing a child to be alone with a known child molester. The harm caused by neglect or other, non-physical types of abuse may not be immediately evident. Thus, proof of actual harm is not always needed for a conviction. In other words, it is assumed that a verified act of emotional abuse, for instance, has caused unseen harm.

Mandatory Reporters

Every state now has a law requiring parents, teachers, social workers, and other adults that are responsible for a child's welfare to report any credible signs of child abuse to the proper authorities. If a mandatory reporter fails to do so (and the signs of abuse are obvious to that adult), he or she may be charged with a misdemeanor. If no abuse is suspected after an investigation, reporters may be charged with a felony if malice is suspected (as long as the report was made in good faith, reporters are not punished).

The vast majority of states allow individuals to anonymously report suspected child abuse, but some states require the name and contact information of the reporter. And while most states list the types of professions that are mandatory reporters, some simply state "any adult" or include "other persons" as a catch-all.

Exceptions to State Child Abuse Laws

While there is no excuse for abusing a child, most states have identified circumstances where charges of abuse should not be filed. In most states, parents may claim a religious exemption from obtaining medical care for their child. Some of these laws specifically carve out an exception for Christian Science practitioners. Similarly, a parent may also claim an "informed medical decision" for failing to obtain a prescribed medical treatment. Colorado even has an exception for "cultural practices."

A number of states provide an exception for the use of corporal punishment in the home, while others allow for the use of "reasonable force" upon a child. For instance, a parent who defends himself against a child's act of violence and causes harm may not be charged with abuse in most cases. Many state child abuse laws also carve out a poverty exception to avoid neglect charges. This way, a parent is not held responsible for the effects of having inadequate resources (such as a child's hunger or lack of medical care).

Some states, including Maryland, offer no exceptions to child abuse laws.

State Child Protective Services

States have agencies charged with ensuring the welfare of their children, typically called "Child Protective Services (CPS)." When someone files a report of suspected child abuse, CPS investigates the claim alongside the police and/or a case worker assigned to the case. The case worker usually interviews the child, while parents and other potential witnesses are often questioned as well. See Child Abuse Cases for a general overview of how cases are investigated.

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