What is Child Abuse?

Child Abuse: Definition

Child abuse is broadly defined in many states as any type of cruelty inflicted upon a child, including mental abuse, physical harm, neglect, and sexual abuse or exploitation. The specific crimes charged in instances of child abuse can include assault and battery. In many states, certain individuals and caregivers are required by law to report suspected child abuse. Nevertheless, unfortunately, many cases of child abuse go unreported.

A child who has been abused or neglected may experience a range of problems, such as relationship difficulties, lack of trust of adults, emotional outbursts (or retreat), low performance at school, depression, anxiety, and anger.

The Elements of a Child Abuse Charge

As noted above, child abuse is a crime that encompasses a variety of behaviors involving physical, emotional, or sexual mistreatment or neglect upon a child. State child abuse laws define child abuse as any act (or failure to act) that:

  1. Results in imminent risk or serious harm to a child’s health and welfare due to physical, emotional, or sexual abuse;
  2. affects a child (typically under the age of 18);
  3. by a parent or caregiver who is responsible for the child’s welfare.

In most states, the harm must have been inflicted by non-accidental means. This includes intentional acts, actions that were careless (such as, allowing a known sexual offender or known abuser to be with a child alone), and acts of negligence (such as, leaving a child under a certain age at home alone). Also, the “harm” inflicted upon a child need not be actual, but may include “threats” or “risks of imminent harm”.

In addition to state child abuse laws, all states have child protective services (CPS) agencies that investigate reports of abuse and neglect of children in a home. CPS also serves to place children who have been abused or neglected in safer homes, either through adoption or foster care.

Typical defenses include accident, wrongful accusations, and a parent’s right to discipline.