State laws surrounding child abuse contain an element not found in many other criminal statutes. Under the laws of many states, third parties with knowledge of child abuse -- and reasonable cause to believe that abuse has occurred -- are under a legal obligation to report the situation to the authorities. Virtually every state requires doctors, teachers, day care providers and law enforcement officers to report child abuse, but there is less uniformity among the states with regard to lawyers, clergy, therapists, or counselors. A few states require commercial photographic film processors to report to the proper authorities evidence of abusive activity. Some states are very specific in stating exactly who may be protected by the privilege, but some are noticeably vague. This is because the privilege itself is considered so important that a general abrogation of the privilege may be generally detrimental to the important relationships involved. For example, some states require health care professionals to report incidences of abuse, while others list as many as 20-25 professions, including dentists, chiropractors, nurses, hospital personnel and Christian Science practitioners.
The agency to whom suspected abuse is reported is often a state child protection office that is not hindered by the same constitutional restrictions to which traditional law enforcement agencies are subject. These agencies are sometimes allowed to take custody of children prior to actually proving that abuse has occurred. This is done in order to protect the child in question from potential abuse when the agent believes that there is a strong likelihood that the child will be, or continue to be harmed. Most states have passed laws that impose penalties not only for failure to report suspected abuse, but also for false reporting.
In the last few years, state laws have changed in two significant ways. Several more states have added enticing or forcing children into sexually exploitive activity to the definition of child abuse. This represents a new definition of abusive activity distinct from sexual abuse. Obviously this new definition results from increased attention being given to child pornography. Another change is the addition of pre-natal child abuse to the state statutes of South Dakota, Wisconsin and, arguably, Texas.