Assessing and Preventing Child Abuse

The definition of “child abuse” varies by state. Although every definition of child abuse must meet certain federal minimum standards, a fine line can still exist between what constitutes abuse and what is a harsh but appropriate punishment. Generally, however, most recognized types of child abuse fall into four categories including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. It is a crime in every state to intentionally or recklessly cause injury to a child. As such, all states have statutes which outline the appropriate procedures for reporting and investigating incidents of child abuse.

Federal Minimum Definition of Child Abuse

In 1974, Congress enacted the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) in order to address concerns regarding abused children. CAPTA, as amended and reauthorized by the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act of 2003, defines child abuse and neglect at a minimum as:

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.

CAPTA provides funding to all the states in order to further its goals in the prevention, assessment, investigation, prosecution and treatment of child abuse.

State Definitions of Child Abuse

Each state is required to at least use the federal minimum definition of child abuse but is entitled to expand upon the federal meaning. Most states recognize four main forms of child abuse including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. While state definitions vary, these four types of abuse may generally be defined as follows:

Physical abuse: The infliction of a nonaccidental physical injury upon a child such as burning, hitting (by hand, stick, strap or other object), punching, shaking, kicking, beating or otherwise harming a child.
Sexual abuse: The inappropriate adolescent or adult sexual behavior with a child.
Emotional abuse: A pattern of behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development or self-worth, including constant criticism, threats or rejection, or withholding love, support or guidance.
Neglect: The failure to provide for a child’s physical, medical, educational and/or emotional needs.

State Action and Parental Rights

All states make it a crime to injure a child regardless of whether the injury was caused intentionally or recklessly. However, rather than being imprisoned, violators are typically investigated and face other consequences. For example, every state has a child welfare system in place which receives and investigates reports of child abuse. Where an abusive situation has been alleged or identified states may have the authority to:

Require the parent to accept parenting training or assistance
Remove the child from the home and place them in foster care or with a relative
Terminate the parental relationship

Significantly, however, parents have a constitutionally protected liberty interest in the care, custody and management of their children. Any attempt by the state to remove a child from the home or terminate the parental relationship is a severe interference with that constitutional right. Thus, in order to intervene, the state’s interest in child safety and welfare must outweigh the interest of the parent.

Duty to Report Child Abuse

Every state has specific procedures for reporting actual or suspected occurrences of child abuse to a designated authority or agency. These procedures vary. For example, while all states require certain individuals to report incidents of abuse, states differ as to whom such a “duty to report” applies. At a minimum, those who generally have a duty to report incidents of child abuse include:

Teachers and childcare workers
Health care practitioners
Mental health care practitioners
Law enforcement personnel

Some states may additionally impose a duty to report on all of its citizens. Also, where a duty exists, the failure to report known or reasonably suspected instances of child abuse or neglect is a criminal misdemeanor and/or a civil offense in some states. Individuals who report child abuse will receive immunity from prosecution provided the report was made in good faith.

Determining the Occurrence of Child Abuse

A determination of whether child abuse has occurred is extremely fact intensive and depends upon the particular circumstances. For example, parents are allowed to “discipline” their children and this may include inflicting some pain. However, the discipline must be “reasonable” under the circumstances. Generally, all physical marks, such as bruises or welts, must be investigated to determine whether the explanation for the injury is believable. Emotional or sexual abuse may be harder to identify but a child may exhibit signs of withdrawal, failure to thrive, destructive behavior and/or developmental disorders.