Child maltreatment refers to instances that can cause harm or injury to a minor child, and can cover a wide range of behaviors or conduct. Common examples of child maltreatment may include:

  • Physical abuse;
  • Mental or emotional abuse; 
  • Sexual abuse (including, but not limited to, sex trafficking);
  • Exposing a child to inappropriate materials; and/or
  • Neglect or abandonment.

Child maltreatment is also often referred to by other names, like child abuse or child neglect. Maltreatment can include both affirmative actions (like beating a child) as well as acts of omission (like not taking them to school). 

For example, while physically harming a child certainly counts as child maltreatment, failure to provide proper food and clothing is also considered maltreatment, even though this does not involve a physical act.

Who Can Be Held Liable for Child Maltreatment?

Most of the time, child maltreatment claims are filed against a child’s parents or legal guardians. However, other people who are in charge of the child can be held liable for child maltreatment. 

If the adult in charge has behaved in a way that has harmed the child, then that person can be held liable for child mistreatment. Other people who could potentially be held liable for child maltreatment include adults such as:

  • Close relatives, like grandparents or aunts and uncles;
  • Teachers and other school employees;
  • Daycare personnel;
  • Medical staff; and/or
  • Sports coaches.

State laws may differ when it comes to the definition of certain varieties of child maltreatment, like child neglect. The laws may also differ on how to categorize a particular act of child mistreatment (what may be considered child abuse in one state may be called neglect in another). All states have laws that specifically address child abuse

Most states enforce some kind of mandatory reporting law for certain groups of people. In order to better protect the welfare of children, these reporting laws require certain professionals, such as teachers, doctors, counselors, and religious officials to report suspicions of child abuse or neglect to the authorities.

What are the Legal Consequences of Child Maltreatment?

Instances of child maltreatment are taken very seriously, and can result in some strict legal consequences. Depending on the state that you live in and the specific circumstances surrounding the maltreatment claim, a parent may lose custody or visitation rights to the child. 

In many instances, custody of the child will be transferred to another parent or another adult who is deemed fit to care for the child.

Other legal consequences in child maltreatment claims may include civil fines, especially if the child has been seriously injured and requires medical treatment. The person who injured the child may be required to pay for medical expenses. In many cases, the adult may also face criminal charges for child abuse or neglect.

Are There Defenses to Child Maltreatment Claims?

If you have been accused of child maltreatment, you may consider certain defenses against the claims. Some more common child maltreatment defenses include (but are not limited to) the following:

False Allegations

It is possible that the allegations of child maltreatment are false and untruthful. False accusations are more likely to occur in situations where the family life is fraught with tension, such as those in dysfunctional families or between parents involved in a tense child custody battle. While this defense may be difficult to prove, you may consider how to approach this possibility with a licensed and experienced attorney.

Injury Was Not Due to Child Abuse

In some circumstances, a child may present with injuries that are not caused by the adult’s actions. Child abuse laws are not intended to punish accidents (unless the accident was caused by recklessness or gross carelessness). 

For example, if a child falls off a bike and scrapes their knee, or if you unknowingly shut your toddler’s hand in a door, these accidents are likely not the result of child abuse.

Even non-accidents can result in allegations of child maltreatment. For example, if a child fights with another child on the playground and gets hurt, or if the child has a pre-existing medical condition that contributes to their own injuries, then you may be able to claim the defense that the injury was not caused by child maltreatment.

Parent’s Right to Discipline

Parents are generally free to discipline their children in any manner they see fit, as long as the discipline is reasonable and causes no bodily injury. This defense can get tricky in cases of spanking. If the child’s injuries are more serious than minor bruising, then this parental privilege may not apply as a defense.

Should I Hire a Lawyer for Help with a Child Maltreatment Claim?

When it comes to cases of child maltreatment, the rules and consequences can be very strict, and result in multiple legal consequences (both civil and criminal). If you or someone you love has been accused of child maltreatment, then it is in your best interests to consult a family law attorney as soon as you can. 

An experienced attorney can gather the facts and evidence in the case to provide you the best possible legal advice on how to proceed. Your attorney can also guide you through the nuances of the legal system and represent you in court, if necessary. If you need to report a case of child maltreatment or file a legal claim, then a qualified attorney can represent you and guide you through those processes as well.