The legal term child abuse refers to the intentional physical, mental, and/or sexual abuse of a minor. Child abuse can also occur when a child’s parent or guardian creates a substantial risk of injury for the child under their supervision.

It is important to note that each state has their own laws regarding and prohibiting child abuse, as well as what age in that state is considered to be a minor child. Although most states define a minor as a child under the age of eighteen, some states define a minor as a child under the age of sixteen.

An important distinction to note is that many states consider child neglect, mistreatment, or maltreatment to be a separate criminal offense than child abuse. In general, a child is considered to be neglected or mistreated when that child’s parent or legal guardian places the child in imminent danger.

For example, failing to properly attend to a child’s nutritional, clothing, shelter, educational, or medical needs would likely result in a child neglect charge. Maltreatment may also result from abandonment of the child, or a parent or guardian’s excessive substance or alcohol abuse to the point that the parent or guardian cannot adequately supervise their child and provide a safe environment.

Broadly speaking child abuse involves some sort of physical abuse that results in an injury occuring to the child. However, child abuse can also include any form of conduct, actions, or inactions that results in physical, mental, or emotional harm to a child. Child abuse also incldues exposing a child to dangerous or offensive situations.

For instance, if a parent or guardian leaves a child alone in a subway station where there are active trains, that would likely constitute child abuse. Child abuse cases often involve a variety of different child abuse violations, especially since child abuse laws continually evolve to recognize more actions, conduct, and inactions to be abusive towards children.

What Constitutes Physical Abuse of a Child?

Examples of what may constitute a child being physically abused include:

  • Hitting a child with a belt or paddle. It is important to note that some states allow parental right to discipline to a degree, such as spanking;
  • Pinching a child hard enough to leave a mark that doesn’t go right away;
  • Burning a child, such as with a cigarette, lighter, hot piece of iron, or stove top;
  • Biting a child hard enough to leave a mark or break their skin;
  • Pushing a child into walls or knocking them to the floor; and/or
  • Other forms of physical child abuse such as choking, kicking, or punching.

Essentially, any form of physical contact with a child that results in the child having an injury may be sufficient to bring an accusation of child abuse against the responsibility party.

What Constitutes Emotional Child Abuse?

Examples of what may constitute a child being emotionally abused include:

  • Repeatedly demeaning and calling the child names that result in psychological harm;
  • Otherwise demeaning a child by telling the child that they are worthless, stupid, or a mistake; and/or
  • Forcing the child to observe adult situations that result in them suffering psychological harm.

What Constitutes Neglect of a Child?

A child may be considered to be neglected if their parent or legal guardian:

  • Does not provide for the nutritional care of the child, resulting in the child being hungry much of the time without enough food or water;
  • Not providing for the health needs of the child, such as not providing necessary medicine or medical care;
  • Not providing adequate clothing for the child, especially warm clothes in winter or cooler clothes in summer;
  • Abandoning or leaving the child home alone when the child is too young to otherwise take care of their needs; and/or
  • Any other forms of neglect, such as failing to keep an eye on the child in public, or locking the child in a room for hours at a time.

What Are the Legal Consequences of Child Abuse?

Child abuse is a very serious crime. As such, a child abuse charge can result in serious legal consequences. These criminal consequences could include:

  • Criminal Fines: Fines as a criminal punishment for child abuse vary by jurisdiction, and may range anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Factors that a court will use to determine the amount of the fine include the severity of the offense and whether the offense was a repeat offense;
  • Jail Time: Jail time is another possible criminal punishment for child abuse. The length of a child abuse jail sentence is also typically determined by the severity of the offense, as well as if it was a repeated offense. Misdemeanor child abuse is generally punishable by up to one year in jail, while a felony child abuse charge is generally punishable by five years to life in prison in some cases; or
  • Restrictions of Parental or Custodial Rights: A judge may also impose a limitation of parental rights through a restraining or protective order. Judges typically do this by placing the child in protective custody with the state, another family member, or by requiring court supervised visits between the parent and child. Restraining or protective orders are intended to prevent the abuser from continuing to be in contact with the child that they have abused.

In extreme cases of child abuse, a judge may also terminate a parent or guardian’s legal rights to the child entirely. Termination is often the last resort, as courts would rather keep the family unit intact. However, a court’s main priority is the child’s best interests, so termination is an option if the facts and circumstances deem it necessary.

What If I Have Been Accused of Child Abuse?

As can be seen, child abuse is a serious criminal offense that carries heavy criminal penalties. However, depending on the specific circumstances of the accusations, there are a few situations in which a person accused of child abuse can assert a legal defense to have the charges brought against them lessened or dropped.

Examples of situations in which a legal defense may be raised by the individual accused of child abuse include:

  • False Child Abuse Claim: Although it may seem obvious if the claim made against the person accused of abuse is a false child abuse claim, the accused party can have the charges dropped by providing evidence of the falsity. Additionally, when a person files a false child abuse claim with their state’s child protection agency, they may penalties themselves.
    • For example, false claims of child abuse are often considered to be a frivolous legal claim, or an abuse of the judicial system. False claims can thus lead to their own legal consequences against the filer, such as a civil lawsuit against the filer by the accused, or criminal fines by the court. If the filer does not understand the legal definition of child abuse, the case may also be dismissed;
  • Lack of Evidence: Accusations of abuse must be supported by sufficient evidence, such as witness testimony or marks on the child’s body indicating physical abuse. This evidence would then be used by the state prosecution to prove that the accused committed child abuse beyond a reasonable doubt. If the evidence is insufficient, the charges would be dismissed;
  • No Causation: A person accused of child abuse must be the direct cause of a child’s injuries in order to be liable for abuse. Thus, if the child’s injuries are a result of an accident or some other cause, the accused party may raise a causation legal defense; or
  • Parental Right to Discipline: Depending on the specific state laws, parents may have the right to discipline their child using methods that may considered child abuse by another person or state. Parents often have the right to use physical conduct up to a certain extent, after that point any physical injuries or marks on the child will likely constitute child abuse.

Once again, the age of a child in a child abuse case plays a major factor in the type of punishment an individual accused of child abuse can receive in a child abuse case. Additionally, the severity of the child abuse would also be another factor in the punishment an accused party may receive in a child abuse case.

Can I Be Held Civilly Liable for Child Abuse?

In addition to criminal penalties, an individual accused of child abuse may also be held civilly liable to the victim in a private civil lawsuit. In this case the injured child’s (the “plaintiff”) legal representative would bring a civil lawsuit against the party accused of causing the injuries to recover for the child’s damages.

If a plaintiff succeeds in their civil lawsuit against the party alleged to have caused their injuries, the party responsible would be liable to pay for the child’s:

  • Pain and suffering;
  • Medical bills and expenses, both past and future; and
  • Punitive damages.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Child Abuse?

As can be seen, child abuse claims are a very serious criminal matter. Thus, if a child abuse claim has been filed against you, it is in your best interests to immediately consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney.

An experienced criminal defense attorney can help you determine what types of defenses may be available in your specific situation. Additionally, an attorney can also represent you in court, as necessary.