Under the Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, child abuse is an action taken, or an action that should have been taken but wasn’t, by a child’s caretaker that causes a child serious physical or mental harm, causes their death, puts the child at significant risk of such harm, or any type of sexual abuse.
All states are required to follow this baseline and can add conditions and examples to their own child abuse laws. Not providing a child with sufficient food, shelter, supervision, medical care, clothing, education, or emotional support are common factors in neglect charges. These laws are most likely to apply to parents, guardians, and child care providers.
State laws differ on the distinction between discipline and child abuse. Generally, physical punishment crosses the line to abuse when:
It’s not always obvious if a type of harm meets these legal standards, or if a failure to act was significant enough to constitute abuse or child neglect. In criminal charges on allegations of child abuse, the state’s evidence will likely look to demonstrate proof of physical harm or mental injury, presenting documentation like family medical and mental health records and witness testimony to strengthen the claims of domestic violence and child abuse. They will need to prove that not only did the defendant do the actions they’ve been accused of, but that those actions cross the indistinct line into abuse.
So if a parent was accused of using excessive physical discipline in the way they spanked a child, the prosecution must prove that the spanking occurred, that it was this defendant who did it, and that it was an impermissible use of force qualifying as physical abuse.
Penalties for child abuse convictions vary depending on how severe the harm or risk was. A reckless act of omission that puts a child at risk of harm but doesn’t actual result in injury could fall under misdemeanor child abuse charges that carry penalties of six months to two years in prison. Intentional acts of physical abuse that result in injury could lead to felony child abuse charges and possible prison sentences of several years, in some cases, up to 15 years or more, if the injuries are severe.
Criminal child abuse allegations and convictions can have far-reaching consequences. A person convicted (or in some cases, even certain reports without conviction) of child abuse, child endangerment, or child neglect, could be placed on a state central registry that tracks child mistreatment records. Files on this registry can appear on background checks and may automatically blacklist people from certain careers, such as those in nursing, childcare, or teaching.
These cases can affect child custody arrangements as well. During a divorce or other separation between the parents, if one is convicted of child abuse they will likely lose custody and unsupervised visitation rights, or visitation rights entirely.
Parents and guardians investigated, charged with, or convicted of child abuse also risk losing custody of their children to the state. State child welfare agencies like Child Protective Services (CPS) or the Department of Children and Families (DCF) often investigate reports of suspected child abuse and may determine that children should be removed from their homes. The removals may place children with relatives, foster parents previously unknown to the child, or group homes. Some removals are temporary, and others permanently sever parental rights and free the children for adoption.
When a state child welfare agency receives a tip of suspected child abuse, they will start an investigation. The reports that progress through the investigative process often lead to a home visit and interviews with care givers, children, medical professionals, childcare workers, neighbors, and other social connections who have some type of knowledge about the family.
If a child welfare agent decides that a child should be placed in alternative care, they can take the parents to court and secure a court order for removal. However, they can also enact an immediate emergency removal and attempt to get a court order after separating the child from their parents or care givers. In some cases, child welfare agencies will try to get parents to voluntary place their children in another home before the agency applies for court permission to take the child.
Child service investigators cannot:
With the possibility of long jail sentences, hefty fines, and losing custody of children, the stakes are very high in child abuse defense cases. Laws and circumstances open to some level of interpretation often make these trials difficult to navigate as well. Working with a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney who has experience defending against child abuse allegations could help analyze the facts of a case, recognize which laws and legal precedents apply, gather evidence and witnesses, and can advocate for their client in court.
Depending on the circumstances of a particular child abuse case, a defense attorney could negotiate for lesser charges and minimum penalties, provide resources for parents who are trying to regain custody, and argue for clients’ parental rights. Many criminal defense lawyers provide free consultations, which can allow defendants to learn more about their options before they have to commit to a plan or contract. These consultations should create a level of legally-mandated confidentiality, even if that firm isn’t hired to take the case, giving parents the ability to speak openly about sensitive information.