What exactly IS the definition of child abuse and neglect?

If you are accused of child abuse, what does that mean? When I was a child, it was common practice to get a spanking, or whopping. It was called discipline.

Now days, spanking your child can get your child taken away from you and suddenly you are labeled an abuser for trying to teach your child tight from wrong. Where do we draw the line? Do parents have to live in fear of disciplining their own child?

What about neglect? CPS often uses the term “neglectful supervision” to justify their reason for involvement in a family’s life. That’s a very elastic term, what does it mean? How do you tell the difference between neglect and simply poverty?

If a family cannot afford to get the child school supplies or new clothes are they really being neglectful?

Let’s take a look at what the experts and the law says is child abuse and neglect.

What exactly IS child abuse?

In defining child maltreatment, experts have focused on both broad parameters and specific types or subgroups of child abuse and neglect.

C. Henry Kempe and colleagues’ “battered child syndrome” identified physical injuries perpetrated on the child by caregivers.

Vincent Fontana’s “maltreatment syndrome” included neglect in the definition of child abuse.

The American Bar Association Juvenile Justice Standards Project defined child abuse as a non-accidental injury that “causes or creates a substantial risk of causing disfigurement, impairment of bodily functioning, or other serious physical injury.”

A group of professionals in child welfare defined “emotional neglect” as the “parent’s refusal to recognize and take action to ameliorate a child’s identified emotional disturbance.”

Another definition of child abuse includes sexual abuse as “the sexual misuse of a child for an adult’s own gratification without proper concern for the child’s psychosexual development.”

The federal government’s legal definition of child abuse and neglect comes under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (Public Law 100-294).

This included child physical and mental abuse, sexual abuse and exploitation, and neglect by a person responsible for the child’s health and welfare.

The Child Abuse Amendments of 1984 (Public Law 98-457) expanded the definition of child abuse and neglect to include “the withholding of medical treatment to an infant with a life threatening health condition or complication.”

The National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators’ definition of child abuse and neglect further defined child maltreatment in a broad level as “any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death or serious physical, sexual, or emotional harm or presents an imminent risk of serious harm to a person under age 18.”

Critics of the sometimes confusing, inconsistent, plethora of definitions of child abuse and neglect point out such problems as some are too narrow, others too inclusive, and the cross-cultural differences with respect to perceptions of child maltreatment and reporting of such.

The lack of uniformity in definitions and the resulting inconsistencies in their application reflect “the manifold perspectives on these acts, and the inchoate state of conceptualization.

Legislative history

The law was completely rewritten in the Child Abuse Prevention, Adoption and Family Services Act of 1988 (Public Law 100-294).

It was further amended by the Child Abuse Prevention Challenge Grants Reauthorization Act of 1989 (P.L. 101-126 and the Drug Free School Amendments of 1989 (Public Law 101-226).

The Community-Based Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Grants was a program that was originally authorized by Sections 402 to 409 of the Continuing Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 1985 (Public Law 98-473).

The Child Abuse Prevention Challenge Grants Reauthorization Act of 1989 (Public Law 101-126) transferred the program to the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, as amended.

A new Title III, Certain Preventive Services Regarding Children of Homeless Families or Families at Risk of Homelessness, was added to the Child Abuse and Neglect and Treatment Act by the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act Amendments of 1990 (Public Law 101-645).

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act was amended and reauthorized by the Child Abuse, Domestic Violence Adoption and Family Services Act of 1992 (Public Law 102-295), and amended by the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act Amendmentsof 1992 (Public Law 102-586).

The Act was amended by the Older American Act Technical Amendments of 1993 (Public Law 103-171, 12/2/93) and the Human Services Amendments of 1994 (Public Law 103-252, 5/19/94).

CAPTA was further amended by the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act Amendments of 1996 (P.L. 104-235, 10/3/96), which amended Title I, replaced the Title II Community-Based Family Resource Centers program with a new Community-Based Family Resource and Support Program, and repealed Title III.

CAPTA was most recently amended by the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act of 2003 (P.L. 108-36, 6/25/03), which amended Title I and replaced Title II, Community-Based Family Resource and Support Program with Community-Based Grants for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect.

CAPTA was reauthorized in 2010, as the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 2011 (Public Law 111-320)

This factsheet available for download by clicking here, is intended to help you better understand the Federal
definition of child abuse and neglect; learn about the different types of abuse and neglect, including human
trafficking; and recognize their signs and symptoms.

It also includes additional resources with information on how to effectively identify and report maltreatment and refer children who have been maltreated.

Federal legislation lays the groundwork for State laws
and Neglect and on child maltreatment by identifying a minimum set of systemwide laws, policies, and statutes that define actions or behaviors as child abuse and neglect.

Federal Law defines child abuse and neglect as, at a 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 victims, fatalities, exploitation (including sexual abuse as determined under section 111), or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm” (42 U.S.C. 5101 note, § 3)

Additionally, it stipulates that “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.

Most Federal and State child protection laws primarily refer to cases of harm to a child caused by parents or other caregivers; they generally do not include harm caused by other people, such as acquaintances or strangers.

Some State laws also include a child’s witnessing of domestic violence as a form of abuse or neglect.

For more information on State-specific laws pertaining to child abuse and neglect, see Child Welfare Information Gateway’s State Statutes Search page .

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