Federal and state laws paint the issue of child abuse with a broad brush, including any type of cruelty inflicted on a child. This includes physical and child sexual abuse, mental abuse, psychological abuse, and exploitation. Specific crimes that may be charged under the umbrella of child abuse may include, among other things, assault and battery. Children subjected to the brutality of abuse or heartlessness of neglect, often experience problems in relationships, lack of trust, depression, anxiety, and anger. In the United States, more than three million reports of child abuse are made each year, and many more go unreported. To explore this concept, consider the following child abuse definition.
Definition of Child Abuse
- Mistreatment or neglect of a child by a parent, guardian, or other caregiver, including physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
Forms of Child Abuse
The crime of abusing children takes place in many forms. Any action, or failure to act, by a parent or caregiver that results in the injury, death, or risk of serious emotional or physical harm to a child is considered abuse. Child abuse cases are broken down into four primary categories:
Physical Child Abuse
Any non-accidental physical injury inflicted on a child by a parent, caregiver, or other individual is considered physical child abuse. Physical child abuse includes such acts as hitting, kicking, shoving, biting, hair pulling, whipping, or other action that could cause injury. It is not necessary for the caregiver to have intended to injure the child when inflicting these acts for it to be considered abuse under the law.
Physical child abuse may result in:
- Cuts and scratches, bruises, burns, or blisters
- Broken bones, dislocated joints, or sprains
- Internal injuries, including brain damage
- Emotional and psychological trauma
Emotional Child Abuse
Acting in such a manner as to cause harm to a child’s mental health and social development is considered emotional child abuse. Emotional child abuse is usually a pattern of behavior that causes greater and greater damage over time.
Emotional child abuse may include:
- Terror – Blaming, accusing, insulting, and threatening a child are acts considered abuse. Punishing a child with threatened or actual abandonment or isolation, injury, or death cause extreme trauma. Other abusive acts include taking advantage of a child’s reliance on adults in manipulating him or setting him up for failure and criticism, as well as screaming and yelling at the child.
- Shame and Humiliation – Criticizing and belittling a child, mocking, and berating are abusive acts, as are calling the child names, making demeaning or humiliating comments, and otherwise battering the child’s self esteem.
- Rejection – Giving a child little or no attention, failing to initiate or return affection, and telling a child he is not wanted or loved are abusive acts. Additionally, not listening to the child when he speaks, cutting him off in conversation, and failing to validate or ridiculing his thoughts and feelings are abusive.
- Isolation – Confining a child to his room or a small area, and preventing him from interacting with other children, forbidding play and positive activities are abusive acts.
- Corruption – Encouraging the child to engage in criminal activity, teaching him to tell lies to justify such acts and ideas, or encouraging bullying or other bad behavior is considered abuse.
Child Sexual Abuse
Child sexual abuse refers to the use of a child for sexual purposes, including involving a child in sexual acts, or forcing him to interact with another child for an adult’s sexual gratification. Such acts may include:
- Forcing or encouraging a child to watch or engage in a sex act
- Forcing a child to look at sex organs, or to show his
- Engaging in inappropriate sexual talk with or in the presence of a child
- Fondling a child, forcing or encouraging a child to fondle an adult
- Performing oral sex on, or receiving oral sex from a child
- Penetration of a child
- Child pornography
- Child prostitution
Failure of a parent or caregiver to give affection, supervise and protect, and provide for a child’s health and safety are considered neglect. Child neglect may be physical, emotional, medical, or educational.
Physical child neglect includes such acts as:
- Abandoning a child
- Failing to provide healthy food and drink
- Failing to provide clothes appropriate to the weather
- Failing to ensure good personal hygiene
- Failing to supervise a child adequately, or leaving the child with an inappropriate caregiver
- Exposing a child to an unsafe or unhealthy environment
Emotional child neglect includes such acts as:
- Failing to provide affection, attention, and emotional support
- Isolating a child from friends and loved ones
- Exposing a child to frequent violence, including domestic violence
- Allowing a child to use drugs or alcohol, or to engage in criminal acts
Medical child neglect includes such acts as:
- Failing to provide preventative medical and dental care
- Failing to take a child to a doctor or hospital for serious illness or injury
- Failing to follow medical instructions or recommendations for a child
- Preventing a child from getting appropriate medical treatment
Educational child neglect includes:
- Failing to enroll a child in school, or failing to provide adequate home schooling
- Allowing a child to miss school excessively
- Failing to allow a child to receive needed special education services
Child Abuse Laws
Because child abuse refers to a wide variety of behaviors or acts, it may be seen as somewhat objective. Every state has statutes that define child abuse, however. Generally, these legal criteria include any act, or failure to act, by a parent or caregiver responsible for the child’s welfare, that results in harm, or risk of harm, to a child’s health and welfare.
Child abuse laws usually specify that the harm must be the result of non-accidental acts or omissions, though careless acts of negligence may also be considered child abuse. For example, allowing a known sex offender to babysit a child would be negligent. Even if the child was not harmed during the time he was left alone with the offender, he was exposed to a risk of imminent harm, which is considered abuse under child abuse laws.
How to Report Child Abuse
Anyone who suspects that a child is being abused or neglected should file a report with a local or state agency. Child abuse may be reported to law enforcement officials, child protective services, or even to an individual who is a mandated reporter.
Mandated Reporters of Child Abuse and Neglect
All states have laws designating certain professionals who have regular contact with vulnerable people, such as children and the elderly, as individuals required to report reasonable suspicions of child abuse or neglect. Mandatory reporting is typically required by law enforcement and healthcare professionals, mental health professionals, social workers, teachers, and childcare providers.
The roots of mandated reporting of child abuse lie in the 1962 publication of “The Battered Child Syndrome” by Henry Kempe and Brandt Steele, which provided guidelines for identifying signs of child abuse and neglect, as well as stressing the importance of reporting abuse to legal authorities. Ten years later, Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (“CAPTA”), providing funds to states for the development of Child Protective Services agencies and abuse hotlines.
By 2009, the number of hotline reports of child abuse skyrocketed to 3.3 million, from only 15,000 in 1963. In that time, substantiated cases of physical abuse decreased 56%, sexual abuse decreased 62%, and neglect decreased 10%.
What is Reported
While the criteria for just what information must be included in a report of suspected child abuse or neglect vary by jurisdiction, minimal requirements generally include:
- Victim ID – The name, age, and address of the victim.
- Perpetrator ID – The name and address of the suspected perpetrator, as well as his or her relationship to the victim if known.
- How Information Obtained – A description of how the reporter learned of, or came to suspect, the abuse or neglect.
- Description of Abuse – The date, time, nature, and extent of the abuse or neglect.
- Previous Abuse – Information of previous abuse, neglect, or injuries suffered by the victim, if known.
- Reporter ID – The name, agency, title, address, and telephone number of the mandated reporter.
Anonymity in Reporting Child Abuse
While mandated reporters must give their names when they make reports, they may protect their privacy by requesting anonymity in many jurisdictions. If the matter goes to trial, however, the identity of the mandated reporter may be disclosed to the alleged perpetrator. Mandated reporters who make reports in good faith are afforded immunity from civil liability. Failure to report suspected abuse or neglect may result in the mandated reporter being subject to fines, sanctions, or other penalties, including a civil lawsuit or criminal prosecution.
Warning Signs of Child Abuse
While physical abuse may leave the most obvious signs, other types of abuse and neglect leave injuries that are harder to detect. Recognizing the warning signs of child abuse or neglect may help stop the cycle.
- Unexplained injuries such as bruises, scrapes, burns, or broken burns
- Fear of going home
- Changes in behavior, such as anxiety, depression, aggressiveness, or fear
- Changes in eating or sleeping habits
- Changes in grades or attendance at school
- Lack of personal hygiene, including dirty hair, body odor, and inappropriate clothing
- High-risk behaviors, such as carrying a weapon, or using drugs or alcohol
- Inappropriate sexual behavior, or the use of overly explicit sexual language, for the child’s age
Warning signs of child abuse may be difficult to recognize, except by people who are in contact with, or who care for, children every day. For this reason, teachers, daycare providers, and other caregivers are in a uniquely suitable position to help a child escape abuse or neglect.
Child Abuse Statistics
Each year in the United States, more than 3 million reports of child abuse and neglect are reported, involving more than 6 million children. This makes the United States one of the worst among industrialized nations for child abandonment and abuse.
Child abuse and neglect are shown to cause increased incidence of such life-altering diseases as ischemic heart disease, liver disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”). Studies have shown that adults who report having 6 or more harmful or detrimental experiences in their childhood have a life expectancy shortened by 20 years.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Domestic Violence – Violent, abusive, threatening, or coercive behavior within the home, typically inflicted by one family or household member on another.
- Criminal Act – An act committed by an individual that is in violation of the law, or that poses a threat to the public.
- Omission – The act of excluding or leaving something out; a failure to do something, especially something for which there is a moral or legal obligation to do.
Negligence – Failure to exercise a degree of care that would be taken by another reasonable person in the same circumstances.