Definitions of Child Abuse and Neglect in the United States
Child abuse and neglect are defined by Federal and State laws. At the State level, child abuse and neglect may be defined in both civil and criminal statutes. This entry presents civil definitions that determine the grounds for intervention by State child protective agencies. States also may define child abuse and neglect in criminal statutes. These definitions provide the grounds for the arrest and prosecution of the offenders. For information on the criminal aspects of child abuse and neglect, visit the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse website at ndaa.org/ncpca.html.
At the Federal level, 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. (CAPTA Reauthorization Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-320), § 5101, Note (§ 3)).
The CAPTA definition of sexual abuse includes: “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 interfamilial relationships, statutory rape, molestation,
prostitution, or other form of sexual exploitation of children, or incest with children.” (42 U.S.C.A. § 5106g(a)(4) (2015)).
In response to increased awareness of the sex trafficking of minors in the United States, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 amended the Federal definition of child abuse with the addition of the following special rule: A child shall be considered a victim of “child abuse and neglect” and of “sexual abuse” if the child is identified, by a State or local agency employee of the State or locality involved, as being a victim of sex trafficking (as defined in § 103(10) of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (22 U.S.C. 7102)) or a victim of severe forms of trafficking in persons described in § 103(9)(A). (42 U.S.C. § 5106g(b) (2015)).
Types of Abuse
Nearly all States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands provide civil definitions of child abuse and neglect in statute (Massachusetts defines child abuse and neglect in regulation).
States recognize the different types of abuse in their definitions, including physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse. Some States also provide definitions in statute for
parental substance abuse and/or for abandonment as child abuse.
Physical abuse is generally defined as “any nonaccidental physical injury to the child” and can include striking, kicking, burning, or biting the child, or any action that results in a physical impairment of the child. In approximately 38 States and American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, the definition of abuse also includes acts or circumstances that threaten the child with harm or create a substantial risk of harm to the child’s health or welfare. The word “approximately” is used to stress the fact that the States frequently amend their laws. This information is current through April 2016. The States are Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
In seven States, the crime of human trafficking, including labor trafficking, involuntary servitude, or trafficking of minors, is included in the definition of child abuse (Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Utah).
Neglect is frequently defined as the failure of a parent or other person with responsibility for the child to provide needed food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision to the degree that the child’s health, safety, and well-being are threatened with harm. Approximately 25 States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands include failure to educate the child as required by law in their definition of neglect. The States that define “failure to educate” as neglect include Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
Ten States and American Samoa specifically define medical neglect as failing to provide any special medical treatment or mental health care needed by the child (Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Iowa, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia).
In addition, four States define medical neglect as the withholding of medical treatment or nutrition from disabled infants with life-threatening conditions (Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, and Montana).
All States include sexual abuse in their definitions of child abuse. Some States refer in general terms to sexual abuse, while others specify various acts as sexual abuse. Sexual exploitation is an element of the definition of sexual abuse in most jurisdictions. Sexual exploitation
includes allowing the child to engage in prostitution or in the production of child pornography.
In 21 States, the definition of sexual abuse includes human trafficking, including sex trafficking or trafficking of children for sexual purposes. Commercial sexual exploitation, including the production of child pornography, can be regarded as types of sex trafficking. The States that specifically include the term “sex trafficking” in their civil definitions of child abuse include Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, and Vermont.
Almost all States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands include emotional maltreatment as part of their definitions of abuse or neglect (all States except Georgia and Washington).
Approximately 33 States, the District of Columbia, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico provide specific definitions of emotional abuse or mental injury to a child (Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming).
Typical language used in these definitions is “injury to the psychological capacity or emotional stability of the child as evidenced by an observable or substantial change in behavior, emotional response, or cognition” and injury as evidenced by “anxiety, depression, withdrawal, or aggressive behavior.”
Parental Substance Abuse
Parental substance abuse is an element of the definition of child abuse or neglect in some States.
Circumstances that are considered abuse or neglect in some States include:
- Prenatal exposure of a child to harm due to the mother’s use of an illegal drug or other substance (14 States and the District of Columbia: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, and Wisconsin).
- Manufacture of a controlled substance in the presence of a child or on the premises occupied by a child (12 States: Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington).
- Allowing a child to be present where the chemicals or equipment for the manufacture of controlled substances are used or stored (three States: Arizona, Arkansas, and Washington).
- Selling, distributing, or giving drugs or alcohol to a child (seven States and Guam: Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio, and Texas).
- Use of a controlled substance by a caregiver that impairs the caregiver’s ability to adequately care for the child (eight States: California, Delaware, Kentucky, Minnesota, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and Texas).
Approximately 17 States and the District of Columbia include abandonment in their definitions of abuse or neglect, generally as a type of neglect (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming).
Approximately 19 States, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands provide definitions for abandonment that are separate from the definition of neglect (Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia).
In general, it is considered abandonment of the child when the parent’s identity or
whereabouts are unknown, the child has been left by the parent in circumstances in which the child suffers serious harm, or the parent has failed to maintain contact with the child or to provide reasonable support for a specified period of time. (1)
1. Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2016). Definitions of child abuse and neglect. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.