What is Child Abuse and Neglect?
By Shelley Wu, Ph.D.
How is Child Abuse and Neglect Defined in Federal Law? U.S. Federal legislation provides a foundation for States by identifying a minimum set of acts or behaviors that define child abuse and neglect. The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), (42 U.S.C.A. §5106g), as amended by the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act of 2003, defines child abuse and neglect as, at minimum:
Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or
An act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.
What Are the Major Types of Child Abuse and Neglect?
Within the minimum standards set by CAPTA, each State is responsible for providing its own definitions of child abuse and neglect. Most States recognize four major types of maltreatment: neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse. Although any of the forms of child maltreatment may be found separately, they often occur in combination.
The examples provided below are for general informational purposes only. Not all States' definitions will include all of the examples listed below, and individual States' definitions may cover additional situations not mentioned here.
Neglect is failure to provide for a child's basic needs. Neglect may be:
o Physical (e.g., failure to provide necessary food or shelter, or lack of appropriate supervision)
o Medical (e.g., failure to provide necessary medical or mental health treatment)
o Educational (e.g., failure to educate a child or attend to special education needs)
o Emotional (e.g., inattention to a child's emotional needs, failure to provide psychological care, or permitting the child to use alcohol or other drugs)
These situations do not always mean a child is neglected. Sometimes cultural values, the standards of care in the community, and poverty may be contributing factors, indicating the family is in need of information or assistance. When a family fails to use information and resources, and the child's health or safety is at risk, then child welfare intervention may be required.
Physical Abuse is physical injury (ranging from minor bruises to severe fractures or death) as a result of punching, beating, kicking, biting, shaking, throwing, stabbing, choking, hitting (with a hand, stick, strap, or other object), burning, or otherwise harming a child. Such injury is considered abuse regardless of whether the caretaker intended to hurt the child.
Sexual Abuse includes activities by a parent or caretaker such as fondling a child's genitals, penetration, incest, rape, sodomy, indecent exposure, and exploitation through prostitution or the production of pornographic materials.
Emotional Abuse is a pattern of behavior that impairs a child's emotional development or sense of self-worth. This may include constant criticism, threats, or rejection, as well as withholding love, support, or guidance. Emotional abuse is often difficult to prove and, therefore, CPS may not be able to intervene without evidence of harm to the child. Emotional abuse is almost always present when other forms are identified.
Child Maltreatment 2001: Summary of Key Findings summarizes national child abuse statistics regarding investigations of child abuse and neglect, victims of maltreatment, perpetrators, fatalities, and services.
Recognizing Child Abuse and Neglect: Signs and Symptoms lists general signs that may signal the presence of child abuse or neglect, as well as signs associated with specific types of abuse.