Child Abuse & Neglect

The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) (42 U.S.C.A. 5106g), as amended by the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act of 2003, 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.

This definition of child abuse and neglect refers specifically to parents and other caregivers. A "child" under this definition generally means a person who is under the age of 18 or who is not an emancipated minor.

While Federal legislation sets minimum standards, each state is responsible for providing its own definition of maltreatment within civil and criminal contexts.

Information received from

Most states recognize four major types of maltreatment: physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse and emotional abuse. Although any of the forms of child maltreatment may be found separately, they often occur in combination. In many states, abandonment and parental substance abuse are also defined as forms of child abuse or neglect.

Abandonment is a form of neglect. A child is considered to be abandoned when the parent's identity or whereabouts are unknown, the child has been left alone in situations 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.

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

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

  • 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)
  • Medical (e.g., failure to provide necessary medical or mental health treatment)
  • Physical (e.g., failure to provide necessary food or shelter or lack of appropriate supervision)

These situations do not always mean a child is a victim of neglect. Sometimes cultural values, the standards of care in the community and poverty may be contributing factors, indicating the family is in need of information or assistance.

Physical abuse is non-accidental physical injury, ranging from minor bruises to severe fractures or death. These can be the result of shaking, hitting, choking, punching, stabbing, biting, beating, kicking, throwing, burning or otherwise harming a child, which is inflicted by a parent, caregiver or other person who has responsibility for the child. Such injury is abuse regardless of whether the caregiver intended to hurt the child. Physical discipline, such as spanking or paddling, is not abuse as long as it is reasonable and causes no bodily injury to the child.

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 also defined 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."

Substance abuse is an element of child abuse or neglect. Circumstances that are considered abuse or neglect include:

  • Manufacture of any drugs in the presence of a child
  • Selling, distributing or giving illegal drugs or alcohol to a child
  • Prenatal exposure of a child to harm due to the mother's use of an illegal drug or other substance
  • The use of a controlled substance by a caregiver that impairs the caregiver's ability to adequately care for the child.
Individuals that are required to report child abuse and/or neglect:

Individuals designated as mandatory reporters typically have frequent contact with children. Such individuals may include:

  • Childcare providers
  • Law enforcement officers
  • Medical examiners or coroners
  • Mental health professionals
  • Physicians and other health-care workers
  • Social workers
  • Teachers and other school personnel

Some other professions frequently mandated to report include commercial film or photograph processors, substance abuse counselors and probation or parole officers. Six states (Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois and South Dakota) include domestic violence workers on the list of mandated reporters. Court-appointed special advocates are mandatory reporters in seven states (Arkansas, California, Maine, Montana, Oregon, Virginia and Wisconsin). Members of the clergy now are required to report child abuse and/or neglect in some states.

In some states, any person who suspects child abuse or neglect is required to report. Some states specify certain professionals who must report but also require all persons to report suspected abuse or neglect, regardless of profession. New Jersey and Wyoming require all persons to report without specifying any professions.

The circumstances under which a mandatory reporter must make a report vary from state to state. Generally, a report must be filed when the reporter, in his or her official capacity, suspects or has reason to believe that a child has been abused and/or neglected. This requires that the person reporting the abuse and/or neglect has knowledge of, or has observed a child being subjected to, conditions that would reasonably result in harm to the child.