The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) defines child abuse and neglect as:
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.
Each state is responsible for creating its own definitions of child abuse and neglect. However, each state’s definitions must fall within CAPTA’s minimum standards. Most states recognize four major types of maltreatment: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. Definitions of child abuse and neglect vary from state to state, but it is possible to identify common themes.
The definitions presented here are drawn verbatim from What Is Child Abuse and Neglect? Recognizing Signs and Symptoms, a factsheet published by the Child Welfare Information Gateway. For a comprehensive overview of each state’s abuse and neglect definitions, see Definitions of Child Abuse and Neglect, compiled by the Child Welfare Information Gateway. For the most up to date definitions in each state, see also the Child Welfare Information Gateway’s State Statute Search.
Physical abuse is nonaccidental 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, that is inflicted by a parent, caregiver, or other person who has responsibility for the child. Such injury is considered abuse regardless of whether the caregiver intended to hurt the child. Physical discipline, such as spanking or paddling, is not considered abuse as long as it is reasonable and causes no bodily injury to the child.
Sexual abuse includes such activities by a parent or other adult as fondling a child’s genitals, penetration, incest, rape, sodomy, indecent exposure, and exploitation through prostitution or the production of pornographic materials.
Sexual abuse is defined by the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act as “the employment, use, persuasion, inducement, enticement, or coercion of any child to engage in, or assist any other person to engage in, any sexually explicit conduct or simulation of such conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct; or the rape, and in cases of caretaker or inter-familial relationships, statutory rape, molestation, prostitution, or other form of sexual exploitation of children, or incest with children.”
Emotional Abuse (or psychological 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, child protective services may not be able to intervene without evidence of harm or mental injury to the child. Emotional abuse is almost always present when other forms are identified.
Neglect is the failure of a parent, guardian, or other caregiver to provide for a child’s basic needs. Neglect may be:
- Physical (e.g., failure to provide necessary food or shelter, or lack of appropriate supervision)
- Medical (e.g., failure to provide necessary medical or mental health treatment)
- Educational (e.g., failure to educate a child or attend to special education needs)
- 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 to what appears to be neglect, indicating that the family is simply in need of information or assistance. In addition, many States provide an exception to the definition of neglect for parents who choose not to seek medical care for their children due to religious beliefs that may prohibit medical intervention. Social workers are trained to make this distinction and can help a family gain access to needed resources. If a family fails to use information and resources, and the child’s health or safety is at risk, then a child welfare intervention may be required.
On educational neglect in homeschool settings, see Recognizing Educational Neglect.