Child abuse is broadly defined as any type of cruelty inflicted upon a child, including physical or emotional harm, endangerment, abandonment, neglect or sexual abuse. Severe punishments exist for offenders. Child services agencies also investigate reports of maltreatment and can remove children from unsafe or unhealthy environments. This combination of criminal prohibitions and protective services forms the basis of child abuse laws, which vary somewhat from state to state.
One major hurdle to stopping child abuse is the difficulty of uncovering it. That's why states have also enacted mandatory reporting requirements for certain professions. These laws apply primarily to people who have regular contact with children or who are most likely to discover abuse or neglect -- such as teachers, doctors, nurses and social workers.
Child Abuse as a Crime
To be a crime, child abuse generally must have been intentional. Typical defenses include saying that the allegations are false, that the injury was accidental, or that the conduct was within parents' right to discipline their children as they see fit.
Criminal penalties depend on the specific nature of the conduct and other factors, including the age of the child. Lengthy prison sentences are common for child sexual abuse or exploitation. Other serious violations of child abuse laws may lead to jail time as well.
When the suspected abuser is someone other than the child's parent or guardian, police departments typically conduct the investigation.
Child Protective Services
All states also have child protective services agencies that look into reports of abuse or neglect. If it appears to government social workers that there's an imminent danger in the home, the agency may take the child from the parents' custody for placement in foster care until it becomes clear that the home environment is safe. In extreme cases of child mistreatment, the investigating agency may seek assistance from a court to terminate parental rights. When this happens, the child may be placed for permanent adoption.
Mandatory Reporting Laws
Every state mandates that people in certain professions must report known or suspected child abuse, and there is often a toll-free hotline for this purpose. The confidential reports promote early intervention to protect the child.
Mandatory reporting laws commonly apply to individuals such as teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, clergy members, day care workers and law enforcement personnel. To protect individuals who make good faith reports, state laws often provide that they can't be sued if they turn out to be in error. In many states, failure to report child abuse is also a criminal misdemeanor punishable by fines, jail time or both.
If you suspect that someone is abusing a child, visit FindLaw's How to Get Help for Child Abuse section for more information on what to do.
Need Help with Child Abuse Laws? Call a Local Attorney
Child abuse cases are a serious matter and there are definitely acts that clearly constitute abuse. However, there can be gray areas where the law isn't always that clear. If you're being criminally investigated for suspected abuse of a child, you should consider a confidential consultation with a criminal defense lawyer near you to get a better idea of how the law applies to your situation.