The term child abuse is generally defined as the pysical, mental, and/or sexual abuse of a minor. Each state has its own laws prohibiting child abuse. The age required to be a “minor” varies under state law. Some states define a minor as a child younger than 18. Others define a minor as a child younger than 16. 

An abused child is a child whose parent or guardian or caretaker inflicts serious physical or emotional (mental) injury upon the child. Abuse also ccurs when a parent or guardian creates a substantial risk of such physical injury, or commits an act of sex abuse against the child.

Many state laws prohibit a separate, related offense known as child maltreatment or mistreatment. This offense is also sometimes referred to child neglect. A child is subject to maltreatment or neglect when the child’s parent or legal guardian places a child in imminent danger of harm. This can happen if they fail to properly attend to the child’s food, clothing, shelter, education, or medical needs. 

Maltreatment may also result from abandonment. In addition, maltreatment or child neglect may result from a parent or guardian’s excessive substance abuse, to the point that the parent cannot adequately supervise the child.

What is Physical Abuse?

Physical child abuse is physical injury inflicted upon the child, with a cruel or malicious intent. Physical abuse consists of the following acts:

  • Punching; 
  • Biting;
  • Kicking;
  • Hitting or striking;
  • Grabbing;
  • Burning;
  • Shaking; or 
  • Otherwise harming a child physically.

What is Mental or Emotional Abuse?

Emotional abuse occurs when a parent or guardian engages in a pattern of behavior that impedes the normal psychological development of a child, or impedes or stunts a child’s sense of self-worth. Examples of emotional abuse include:/

  • Name-calling;
  • Teasing;
  • Taunting;
  • Making insulting or demeaning remarks;
  • Depriving a child of guidance, love, or support;
  • Making threats of physical or sexual abuse; and
  • Forcing a child to watch the emotional or physical abuse of another person.

What is Child Sexual Abuse?

By definition, a child cannot consent to sexual activity. Sexual activity involving a minor is therefore prohibited. Sexual abuse of a child may occur when:

  • A parent or guardian commits sexual acts with a child;
  • A parent or guardian exposes themselves to a child;
  • A parent exploits a child (involves the child in sexual activity in return for payment); and
  • A parent or guardian engages in any type of sexual behavior that harms a child’s emotional or physical well-being.

What are Child Maltreatment and Child Neglect?

A parent or guardian commits child neglect or child maltreatment (mistreatment) when the parent or guardian fails to tend to a child’s basic needs. In many states, child neglect is itself considered a form of child abuse. Neglect is considered a passive form of abuse. Neglect can take the form of physical, educational, emotional, or medical neglect.

These may be understood as follows:

  • Physical neglect occurs when a parent or guardian fails to provide for a child’s basic needs These needs include food, clothing, and shelter, and sanitary conditions of living. Abandonment is also considered physical neglect because the parent is not physically present to supervise the child;
  • Educational neglect occurs when a parent fails to tend to a child’s basic educational needs. This neglect may occur when a parent fails to enroll a child in public or private school;
  • Emotional neglect occurs when a parent or guardian fails to provide psychological care or affection. This type of neglect also occurs when a parent or guardian refuses to allow a child to form relationships or friendships with other children or other adults, or with siblings, or if the parent or guardian is indifferent as to whether a child forms such relationships; and 
  • Medical neglect occurs when a parent or guardian fails to provide required medical care, either by delaying, or denying outright, the opportunity for needed medical treatment. 

What are the Legal Consequences of Child Abuse?

Legal consequences of child abuse include fines, jail time, and restrictions of parental or custodial rights.

Fines differ by jurisdiction, ranging from hundreds of dollars to several thousand. The severity of the offense, and whether the offense is a repeat offense, are considered when assessing fines. Severity of an offense and whether the offense is a repeat offense also play a part in determining the length of a child abuse jail sentence. Misdemeanor child abuse is punishable by up to a year in jail. Felony child abuse is punishale by sentences that can exceed a year (in some cases, 5 years or 10 years).

A parent who commits child abuse may be subject to limitation of parental rights. A judge may impose a limitation through a restraining or protective order; by placing a child in protective custody with the state; or by requiring the parent visit the child under court supervision. In extreme cases of abuse a judge may terminate parental rights.

Do I Need a Lawyer Who Handles Child Abuse Cases?

Child abuse is punishable as a crime, and also subjects a person who commits it to civil penalties. If you face allegations of child abuse, or believe that child abuse may be occuring, you should consult with a criminal defense attorney.  An experienced criminal defense attorney can explain your rights, prepare a defense, and represent you in court.