Skip to main content

Family Law

Search for an Attorney  

Child Abuse

Child abuse is very serious matter and should be reported immediately. However, many people are caught up in false accusations of child abuse. Falsely reporting child abuse can ruin a parent's life and lead to loss of custody or even jail time. False abuse claims can also lead to penalties for the reporter.

Child abuse can involve criminal abuse charges or child welfare hearings in civil court. The laws regarding abuse, custody, and child welfare are different in every state. This page provides an overview of child abuse issues. An experienced child abuse lawyer in your area can give you the best advice for questions about custody and child abuse claims.

What Is Considered Child Abuse?

The definition of child abuse is different in each state. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, child abuse and neglect is, "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."

Abuse can take many forms and includes more than just physical harm. Child abuse can involve a single incident but it is often a repeated or continuous offense. Some types of abuse include:

  • Physical injury
  • Emotional neglect
  • Educational neglect
  • Child sexual abuse
  • Psychological abuse
  • Abandonment
  • Endangerment
  • Child maltreatment
  • Exploitation

For example, under California law, abuse involves, “any person who willfully inflicts upon a child any cruel or inhuman corporal punishment or an injury resulting in a traumatic condition."

Abuse in childhood can lead to long-term mental harm. Common types of harm from adverse childhood experiences can lead to increased risk of a substance use disorder, impaired emotional development, social withdrawal, and domestic abuse relationships.

Signs of Possible Abuse

Signs of child abuse can include child physical injury, mental health problems, or things the child says. Some examples of suspected abuse may include:

  • Repeated injuries
  • Injuries to an area of the body usually protected, including the back, buttocks, or groin
  • Unexplained injuries
  • Injuries where the parent doesn't seek proper medical care
  • Poor hygiene or soiled clothing
  • Self-harm injuries
  • Inappropriate clothing for the weather
  • Lack of dental care

Child Neglect

Neglect is another form of abuse that involves failing to provide for the basic needs of the child, including basic necessities like food, clothing, shelter, or medical care. Neglect could also involve leaving the child alone too long or in dangerous surroundings.

Like abuse, severe neglect can endanger the child's life, health, or well-being, or impair a child's health, development, or functioning. The definition of "serious physical neglect" in Pennsylvania (PA) includes:

  1. A repeated, prolonged or egregious failure to supervise a child in a manner that is appropriate considering the child's developmental age and abilities.
  2. The failure to provide a child with adequate essentials of life, including food, shelter, or medical care.

Parents also have to make the decisions when to take their child to see the doctor for treatment and what type of preventive medical care the child will receive. However, a parent that denies some medical care for their child could be accused of medical neglect. Parents generally have the right to make medical decisions for their child but not when the decision endangers the child's life. The state child protection agency may be allowed to make medical decisions if the child would die without treatment, even if the parent is refusing to give consent.

If a doctor believes a parent is endangering their child by refusing appropriate and life-saving medical care, the doctor could report the parent for abuse. Medical neglect could lead to criminal charges or loss of custody. The state may step in to provide the neglected child reasonable medical care, even if it conflicts with the parents' religious beliefs.

Child Abuse and Child Custody

Child abuse can be a factor in child custody hearings. After a separation, most parents have some level of shared custody or visitation schedules. When your child is away with the other parent, you may not be around to witness any problems. However, the other parent may be living with an abusive partner, someone with substance abuse problems, or your child could be a witness to domestic violence.

When one parent suspects possible abuse by the other parent or someone in the other parent's home, they may want to immediately take the child away to safety. However, unless the child is in immediate danger, parents should go through the courts to regain custody of their child. Taking the child away on your own and violating a child custody order could be seen as parental kidnapping. Talk to your child custody lawyer if you are concerned your child may be in danger and want to know your legal options.

After a contentious divorce or separation, one of the parents may use their child as a pawn to punish their former partner. In some cases, a parent may falsely accuse the other parent of child abuse as a way to get full custody of their child as well as punish the other parent. This can put an innocent person in jail and make them lose custody of their child. False claims of abuse can also cause childhood emotional harm.

Mandatory Child Abuse Reporting

Every state has statutes regarding the steps that a mandatory reporter needs to take when reporting child abuse or neglect. Mandatory reporters are often people in a professional position of trust who are likely to see evidence or suspect abuse or physical neglect. Reporters may include medical professionals, teachers, counselors, and police officers.

Mandatory reporters may be required to immediately report suspected child abuse or neglect to a child abuse hotline, local law enforcement agency, or the appropriate county department. Reporting may also require an online or written report, with supporting information, including:

  • Name and address of the child
  • Parents or the person(s) responsible for the child
  • Age of the child
  • Description of the child's injuries
  • Any action taken
  • Any other related information

There may be criminal penalties for failure to report abuse. However, there may also be criminal penalties for making a false report, which could include jail time and fines.

Anyone can also report suspected abuse of children, even if they are not a mandatory reporter. The Child Welfare Information Gateway (part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), has a national hotline to report suspected physical violence to children and families.

Child Welfare Cases

When suspected child abuse is reported, child protective services (CPS) may receive the report and conduct an investigation. The police may start with a visit to the child's home or school for a welfare check. As part of the CPS investigation, the investigators may look for signs of abuse, talk to other siblings in the household, and look at the conditions of the home. Social services or a mental health professional may also interview the abused child.

If the child welfare agency determines that a crime has been committed or the home is unsafe because of neglectful parents, they may take the child into protective custody. Depending on the situation, the child may be placed with a parent or relative in another household or the child could be placed in foster care.

State Child Abuse Laws

Child abuse is a criminal offense and each state has its own definition of criminal child abuse. What is considered criminal child abuse may depend on the age of the individuals, the relationship between the abuser and victim, and the type of child abuse involved.

For example, parents may have more options for disciplining their children than caregivers or teachers. What is considered appropriate force to discipline a child is different for a 16-year-old than for an infant. Contact a criminal defense attorney in your state if you have questions about criminal child abuse charges.

Penalties for Criminal Child Abuse

The penalties for criminal child abuse depend on a lot of factors, including the form of child abuse, the extent of the abuse, and the ages of the people involved. Potential penalties for abuse of children can include:

  • Jail time
  • Fines
  • Registration as a sex offender for child sexual abuse
  • Loss of parental rights
  • Subject to restraining orders
  • Substance abuse treatment or parenting classes

For example, a conviction for 3rd-degree felony child abuse in Florida is punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a fine. In Texas, a conviction for intentional child abuse that resulted in serious bodily injury can be charged as a first-degree felony, punishable by up to 99 years imprisonment.

Defenses to Child Abuse Allegations

With any allegations of physical abuse, you should take the claims seriously. There may be a lot at stake if you are charged with child abuse, including jail time or loss of custody. A criminal defense attorney or child custody lawyer can give you legal advice to avoid any problems after someone accuses you of child abuse.

A Parent's Right to Discipline Their Child

Parents feel like they have the right to raise their child as they see fit but the state may step in if someone reports abuse. Spanking a child used to be a very common way to discipline a child but can now be considered abuse in some settings. Depending on the state, parents generally have the right to use reasonable and appropriate force but may be prohibited from using “excessive" force.

What is considered excessive may vary from person to person. However, physical punishment that results in broken bones or causes serious injury to physical health is generally not considered reasonable or appropriate.

Learn more about Child Abuse

Find the all information you need to understand your options