The term child abuse generally refers to the intentional physical, mental, or sexual abuse of a minor. Abuse can occur when a child’s parent or guardian creates a substantial risk of injury. Each state has its own laws regarding and prohibiting child abuse and the age considered to be a minor child. Some states define a minor as a child under the age of eighteen, while others define a minor as a child under sixteen.

It is important to note that many states consider child neglect, mistreatment, or maltreatment a separate offense from child abuse. A child is considered neglected or mistreated when the child’s parent or legal guardian places the child in imminent danger.

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

In broad terms, child abuse involves some sort of physical abuse that results in the child’s injury. However, child abuse can also include any conduct that results in physical, mental, or emotional harm and exposes a child to dangerous or offensive situations. Many child abuse cases involve various child abuse violations, especially since child abuse laws continually recognize more actions and inactions to be abusive towards children.

What Are the Legal Consequences of Child Abuse?

Child abuse is a grave crime, and as such, a child abuse charge can result in serious legal consequences. These consequences could include:

  • Fines: Fines as a criminal punishment for child abuse vary by jurisdiction and may range from a few hundred to thousands of dollars. Some factors determining fine amounts include the severity of the offense and whether the offense was repeated;
  • Jail Time: Jail time is another criminal punishment for child abuse. The severity of the offense also determines the length of a child abuse jail sentence and if it was a repeated offense. Misdemeanor child abuse is punishable by up to one year in jail, while a felony child abuse charge is punishable by sentences that can exceed one year or five to ten years in some cases;
  • Restrictions of Parental or Custodial Rights: A judge may limit parental rights through a restraining or protective order. They may do this by placing the child in protective custody with the state or requiring court-supervised visits between the parent and child. Restraining or protective orders intend to prevent the abuser from coming in contact with the child they have abused.

In extreme child abuse cases, a judge may entirely terminate a parent’s rights. Courts would rather keep the family unit intact and consider termination of parental rights a last resort. However, a court’s main priority is the child’s best interests. Once parental rights have been terminated, it is rare for them to be reinstated.

Are There Any Defenses to Child Abuse?

Defending against a child abuse charge can be difficult, especially if it involves the testimony of a child. While child abuse laws aim to protect children, the justice system may vindicate those who are wrongfully accused.

As previously mentioned, child abuse is a serious offense and carries heavy legal penalties. Depending on the specific circumstances, there are a few situations in which a person accused of child abuse can assert a defense. These include:

  • False Child Abuse Claim: A false child abuse claim is when a person files a false child abuse claim with their state’s child protection agency. This can especially occur if the filer does not understand the legal definition of child abuse;
  • Lack of Evidence: Accusations of abuse must be supported by evidence such as witness testimony or marks on the child’s body indicating physical abuse;
  • No Causation: A person must directly cause a child’s injuries to be liable for abuse. If the injuries result from an accident or another cause, the accused may have a defense;
  • Parental Right to Discipline: Depending on state laws, parents may have the right to discipline their child using methods considered child abuse by some. Parents often have the right to use physical conduct up to a certain extent. So long as the discipline is reasonable and causes no bodily injury, parents have the right to discipline their children.
    • The question of how a parent disciplines a child, such as through spanking or threat of spanking, is the subject of many child abuse cases. In some cases, a parent can raise the defense of parental privilege and claim they had the right to discipline a child under their authority reasonably. However, if a child’s injuries are more serious than minor bruising due to the discipline, the parental privilege may not apply.
  • Religious beliefs: Parents may claim an exemption to child abuse for religious reasons when a child dies from a parent’s failure to seek medical care for their sick child. The religious exemption is a controversial defense in all but a handful of cases. The religious exemption allows parents to escape child abuse charges if they pray over their sick children rather than take them to a doctor.
  • Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSBP): In rare cases, an individual accused of child abuse may raise the defense called MSBP. MSBP is used to describe incidents where a child caregiver lies about or promotes illnesses in their children to draw attention or sympathy to themselves. This defense usually requires proof of psychological or medical data. MSBP is a type of insanity defense.

Sometimes, parents are falsely accused of child abuse based on non-accidental situations, such as when a child fights with another child and injures themselves. A child may have pre-existing medical conditions that contribute to their injuries. For example, “brittle bone disease” has been raised as a defense to show that a child’s injuries result from a disorder that causes a child’s bones to break easily and not child abuse.

Child abuse defenses essentially focus on the question of causation and whether the accused of child abuse was responsible or legally culpable for the actions that caused harm to the child.
False claims of child abuse are often considered a frivolous legal claim or abuse of the judicial system. False claims can also lead to legal consequences, such as civil lawsuits against the filer.

Should I Hire an Attorney for Help with Child Abuse Defense Laws?

Child abuse claims are taken very seriously. Child abuse laws intend to protect children and minors from harmful conduct. These laws also contain provisions protecting parents and guardians from false claims.

If a child abuse claim has been filed against you, it is in your best interests to immediately consult with a skilled and knowledgeable family lawyer in your area. An experienced family attorney can educate you on your state’s laws regarding child abuse. They can also help you determine what types of defenses may be available in your specific situation. Additionally, they can represent you in court, if necessary.

There may be several child abuse defenses available depending on the circumstances in your case. Whether you’ve been accused of abuse or need to file a claim for abuse, seek legal help today by contacting an attorney near you.