Abuse and Neglect: How is Abuse and Neglect Defined by Law?

This information was taken directly from Child Welfare Information Gateway

The first step in helping abused or neglected children is learning to recognize the signs of child abuse and neglect. The presence of a single sign does not mean that child maltreatment is occurring in a family, but a closer look at the situation may be warranted when these signs appear repeatedly or in combination. This factsheet is intended to help you better understand the legal definition of child abuse and neglect, learn about the different types of abuse and neglect, and recognize the signs and symptoms of abuse and neglect. Resources about the impact of trauma on well-being also are included in this factsheet.

How Is Child Abuse and Neglect Defined in Federal Law?

Federal legislation lays the groundwork for State laws on child maltreatment by identifying a minimum set of acts or behaviors that define child abuse and neglect. The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), (42 U.S.C.A. §5106g), as amended and reauthorized by the CAPTA Reauthorization Act of 2010, defines child abuse and neglect as, at minimum:

Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.

Most Federal and State child protection laws primarily refer to cases of harm to a child caused by parents or other caregivers; they generally do not include harm caused by other people, such as acquaintances or strangers. Some State laws also include a child’s witnessing of domestic violence as a form of abuse or neglect.

What Are the Major Types of Child Abuse and Neglect?

Within the minimum standards set by CAPTA, each State is responsible for providing its own definitions of child abuse and neglect. Most States recognize the four major types of maltreatment: physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse. Signs and symptoms for each type of maltreatment are listed below. Additionally, many States identify abandonment and parental substance abuse as abuse or neglect. While these types of maltreatment may be found separately, they often occur in combination. For State-specific laws pertaining to child abuse and neglect, see Child Welfare Information Gateway’s State Statutes Search page: https://www.childwelfare.gov/systemwide/laws_policies/state/

Information Gateway’s Definitions of Child Abuse and Neglect provides civil definitions that determine the grounds for intervention by State child protective agencies: https://www.childwelfare.gov/systemwide/laws_policies/statutes/define.pdf

Physical abuse is nonaccidental physical injury (ranging from minor bruises to severe fractures or death) as a result of punching, beating, kicking, biting, shaking, throwing, stabbing, choking, hitting (with a hand, stick, strap, or other object), burning, or otherwise harming a child, that is inflicted by a parent, caregiver, or other person who has responsibility for the child.1 Such injury is considered abuse regardless of whether the caregiver intended to hurt the child. Physical discipline, such as spanking or paddling, is not considered abuse as long as it is reasonable and causes no bodily injury to the child.

Neglect is the failure of a parent, guardian, or other caregiver to provide for a child’s basic needs. Neglect may be:

  • Physical (e.g., failure to provide necessary food or shelter, or lack of appropriate supervision)
  • Medical (e.g., failure to provide necessary medical or mental health treatment)2
  • Educational (e.g., failure to educate a child or attend to special education needs)
  • Emotional (e.g., inattention to a child’s emotional needs, failure to provide psychological care, or permitting the child to use alcohol or other drugs)

Sometimes cultural values, the standards of care in the community, and poverty may contribute to maltreatment, indicating the family is in need of information or assistance. When a family fails to use information and resources, and the child’s health or safety is at risk, then child welfare intervention may be required. In addition, many States provide an exception to the definition of neglect for parents who choose not to seek medical care for their children due to religious beliefs.3

Sexual abuse includes activities by a parent or caregiver such as fondling a child’s genitals, penetration, incest, rape, sodomy, indecent exposure, and exploitation through prostitution or the production of pornographic materials. Sexual abuse is defined by CAPTA as “the employment, use, persuasion, inducement, enticement, or coercion of any child to engage in, or assist any other person to engage in, any sexually explicit conduct or simulation of such conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct; or the rape, and in cases of caretaker or inter-familial relationships, statutory rape, molestation, prostitution, or other form of sexual exploitation of children, or incest with children.”

Emotional abuse (or psychological abuse) is a pattern of behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development or sense of self- worth. This may include constant criticism, threats, or rejection, as well as withholding love, support, or guidance. Emotional abuse is often difficult to prove, and therefore, child protective services may not be able to intervene without evidence of harm or mental injury to the child. Emotional abuse is almost always present when other types of maltreatment are identified.

Abandonment is now defined in many States as a form of neglect. In general, a child is considered to be abandoned when the parent’s identity or whereabouts are unknown, the child has been left alone in circumstances where the child suffers serious harm, or the parent has failed to maintain contact with the child or provide reasonable support for a specified period of time. Some States have enacted laws—often called safe haven laws—that provide safe places for parents to relinquish newborn infants. Child Welfare Information Gateway produced a publication as part of its State Statute series that summarizes such State laws. Infant Safe Haven Laws is available on the Information Gateway website: https://www.childwelfare.gov/systemwide/laws_policies/statutes/safehaven.cfm

Substance abuse is an element of the definition of child abuse or neglect in many States. Circumstances that are considered abuse or neglect in some States include the following:

  • Prenatal exposure of a child to harm due to the mother’s use of an illegal drug or other substance
  • Manufacture of methamphetamine in the presence of a child
  • Selling, distributing, or giving illegal drugs or alcohol to a child
  • Use of a controlled substance by a caregiver that impairs the caregiver’s ability to adequately care for the child

For more information about this issue, see Child Welfare Information Gateway’s Parental Drug Use as Child Abuse at https://www.childwelfare.gov/systemwide/laws_policies/statutes/drugexposed.cfm

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Acknowledgment:

This updated factsheet is based on a previous publication that was adapted, with permission, from Recognizing Child Abuse: What Parents Should Know. Prevent Child Abuse America. ©2003.

Reference

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2013). What is child abuse and neglect? Recognizing the signs and symptoms. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.

Citations

1 Nonaccidental injury that is inflicted by someone other than a parent, guardian, relative, or other caregiver (i.e., a stranger), is considered a criminal act that is not addressed by child protective services.

2 Withholding of medically indicated treatment is a specific form of medical neglect that is defined by CAPTA as “the failure to respond to the infant’s life-threatening conditions by providing treatment (including appropriate nutrition, hydration, and medication) which, in the treating physician’s or physicians’ reasonable medical judgment, will be most likely to be effective in ameliorating or correcting all such conditions...” CAPTA does note a few exceptions, including infants who are “chronically and irreversibly comatose”; situations when providing treatment would not save the infant’s life but merely prolong dying; or when “the provision of such treatment would be virtually futile in terms of the survival of the infant and the treatment itself under such circumstances would be inhumane.”

3 The CAPTA amendments of 1996 (42 U.S.C.A. § 5106i) added new provisions specifying that nothing in the act be construed as establishing a Federal requirement that a parent or legal guardian provide any medical service or treatment that is against the religious beliefs of the parent or legal guardian.