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Child Abuse Law

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Emotional Child Abuse

Not all child abuse is physical. Children can suffer abuse and emotional distress based on the words and behavior of those around them. Emotional abuse can cause severe mental damage, leaving the child with anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), even into adulthood. It is important to recognize warning signs of possible emotional abuse and protect children from any further harm.

This page provides an overview of emotional child abuse and legal challenges. However, the state laws involving child abuse allegations are different in every state. If you need answers to your legal questions, talk to an experienced child abuse lawyer in your state.

What Is Emotional Child Abuse?

According to the Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), abuse is broadly defined 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, any act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm."

Emotional mistreatment or psychological maltreatment can include acts or omissions that caused or could have caused conduct, cognitive, affective, or other behavioral or mental disorders. The signs of emotional harm can be difficult to identify and often go unreported. Signs of possible child psychological abuse include:

  • Eating disorders
  • Self-harm
  • Loss of self-confidence
  • Withdrawing from friends or social activities
  • Sudden changes in behavior
  • Difficulties in school
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Defiant behavior
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Bad behavior

The signs of childhood trauma can be different, depending on the type of abuse and the age of the child. In very young children or toddlers, abuse might present as the child being overly affectionate to people they don't know or being aggressive to other children, or cruel to animals.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some children who have experienced PTSD caused by an abusive relationship can appear to be restless, fidgety, or have difficulty staying focused, which can be confused with symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

What Are Examples of Emotional Abuse?

Mental abuse of children can occur with other types of abuse, including childhood physical abuse, childhood sexual abuse, and neglect. The most common perpetrators of emotional abuse include the child's mother or father. Other mistreatment can involve another relative, parent's abusive partner, or caregiver. Some forms of abuse and examples of abusive behavior include:

  • Verbal abuse or verbal aggression
  • Psychological aggression
  • Physical aggression
  • Excessive demands on a child's performance
  • Rejection
  • Emotional deprivation
  • Undermining the child's ideas or feelings
  • Humiliating or insulting a child
  • Making threats of physical violence or destruction of the child's property
  • Isolation to keep the child from socializing with others
  • Tolerating or encouraging inappropriate behavior
  • Indifference to the child's emotional needs
  • Neglecting the child's emotional and social needs
  • Abandonment

Major Risk Factors for Emotional Abuse

Some factors in the child's or caregiver's life can increase the risk of emotional abuse towards a child. Lifestyle risk factors for physiological and emotional abuse include:

  • Alcohol abuse
  • Drug abuse
  • Financial problems
  • Domestic violence
  • History of the caregiver being abused
  • Social isolation
  • Family crisis
  • Mental illness like depression or PTSD
  • Children with developmental disabilities
  • Violence against women

Mandatory Reporters for Abuse

Anyone who suspects a child that may be subject to abuse can report their suspicions to the police or local department of social services or child welfare. However, some people are required by law to report suspected abuse. These are known as mandatory reporters. Many of these positions involve people who are in regular contact with children.

Mandatory reporting laws are different in each state but generally require the following professionals to report abuse. Mandatory reporters include:

  • Teachers
  • Doctors and nurses
  • Healthcare workers
  • Counselors and therapists
  • Child care providers
  • Law enforcement
  • Social workers

States generally maintain confidentiality to protect mandatory reporters when they come forward with reports of abuse. Reporters can also use toll-free phone numbers to report suspected abuse anonymously. If you suspect possible abuse and want to report it, you can contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453).

  • In Pennsylvania, child abuse includes "nonaccidental serious mental injury to or sexual abuse or sexual exploitation of a child under 18 years of age."
  • In Texas, mandatory reporters have to respond if the person has cause to believe that a child's "physical or mental health or welfare has been adversely affected by abuse or neglect. "
  • In New York, failure to report suspected child abuse is a misdemeanor, subject to prison time of up to 1 year.

Child Emotional Abuse Investigations

After someone makes a report of child abuse or emotional neglect, the state's Child Protective Services (CPS) is supposed to evaluate the report. If the CPS worker determines an investigation is necessary, the CPS worker may contact the family, child, or others to determine if the child may be abused or in danger.

A CPS worker can help parents and caregivers get the services and other assistance needed to keep the child safe. If necessary, the child can be placed in temporary protective custody until it is safe to return the child home. Permanent removal is generally the last resort for cases of severe abuse and failed rehabilitation.

Long-Term Consequences of Child Maltreatment

Emotional abuse can have long-term health consequences, including physical and psychological complications. Adverse childhood experiences can lead to adverse health outcomes, developmental disabilities, stunted growth, and health problems. Victims of abuse often turn to alcohol or drugs and develop substance abuse problems.

Child abuse can lead to mental health consequences and behavioral problems, including violent behavior, abuse of an intimate partner, criminal activity, attempted suicide, high-risk sexual activity, failure to finish school, inability to maintain a healthy relationship with others, problems at work, or difficulty finding employment. The emotional trauma of abuse can result in low self-esteem, difficulty in relationships, and an inability to cope with stress.