The term child abuse generally refers to the intentional physical, mental, and/or sexual abuse of a minor. Abuse can also occur when a child’s parent or guardian creates a substantial risk of injury. Each state has their own laws regarding and prohibiting child abuse, as well as 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 the age of sixteen.

It is important to note that many states consider child neglect, mistreatment, or maltreatment to be a separate offense from child abuse. A child is considered to be neglected or mistreated when the child’s parent or legal guardian places the child in imminent danger. An example of this 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 injury of the child. However, child abuse can also include any conduct that results in physical, mental, or emotional harm, as well as exposing a child to dangerous or offensive situations. Many child abuse cases involve a variety of different 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 very serious 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 anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of dollars. Some of the factors that 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 criminal punishment for child abuse. The length of a child abuse jail sentence is also determined by the severity of the offense, as well as 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, five to ten years in some cases; or
  • Restrictions of Parental or Custodial Rights: A judge may impose a limitation of parental rights through a restraining or protective order. They may do this by placing the child in protective custody with the state, or by requiring court supervised visits between the parent and child. Restraining or protective orders are intended to prevent the abuser from coming in contact with the child they have abused.

In extreme cases of child abuse, a judge may terminate (end) a parent’s rights entirely. Courts would rather keep the family unit intact, and consider termination of parental rights to be 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?

As previously mentioned, child abuse is a serious offense and carries heavy legal penalties. However, 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, or when a person files a false child abuse claim with their state’s child protection agency. This is especially true 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 be the direct cause of a child’s injuries in order to be liable for abuse. If the injuries are a result of an accident or some other cause, there may be a defense for the accused; or
  • Parental Right to Discipline: Depending on state laws, parents may have the right to discipline their child using methods that may considered child abuse by some. Parents often have the right to use physical conduct up to a certain extent

False claims of child abuse are often considered to be a frivolous legal claim, or an abuse of the judicial system. False claims can also lead to their own legal consequences, such as civil lawsuits against the filer.

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

As can be seen, child abuse claims are taken very seriously, and child abuse laws are intended to protect children and minors from harmful conduct. These laws also contain provisions which protect parents and guardians from any 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 law attorney in your area. An experienced family law 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.