Children occupy a special place in the law. Legal systems presume
that children do not have the mental capacity to care for themselves or
make their own choices. Instead, many of the choices a child has are
often made by the child's parent, legal guardian, or custodian.
part of the child-caring process, parents or caregivers may need to
discipline a child. This discipline sometimes involves physical acts
such as spanking, confinement, or the restriction of privileges. Though
courts are often very reluctant to intervene in family matters or
dictate how parents must raise their children, some acts of discipline
or types of acts against a child are considered abusive and criminal.
When a parent, guardian, or child caregiver --or anyone in a position of
power -- commits violence, sexual acts, or other damaging acts against a
child, states punish these acts as child abuse.
Child Abuse Charges
all states have laws that govern physical attacks against children,
such as battery or homicide, many others also have laws that
specifically address child abuse. Though the language of these laws
differs widely, they all prohibit any type of cruelty towards a child,
such as physical attacks, mental abuse, and neglect. Many states also
have crimes that specifically address other abusive situations involving
children, such as sexual abuse. Child abuse laws cover the same conduct
regardless of the state in which the abuse occurs.
- Assault. Child
abuse laws criminalize physical attacks against children, or actions
that result in harm to the child. Minor injuries, such as bruises, or
more serious injuries, such as burns or broken bones, are all abusive if
the adult intends to inflict them upon the child. Even if the adult
does not intend to cause the injury, or causes no injury at all,
intentionally assaulting a child is abusive.
Child abuse charges often arise out of cases where a parent or
caregiver attempts to discipline a child. Courts have determined that
acts of discipline must be considered under the circumstances of the
event, and the parent or custodian must act in the best interests of the
child. An adult can use reasonable actions to discipline a child, but
unreasonable acts are usually considered abusive. However, what is
reasonable in one situation may not be reasonable in another. Courts
consider the reasonableness of disciplinary actions based on factors
such as the age of the child, the severity of the actions, the extent of
any harm or potential harm the child suffered, and even the
sociocultural background of the family.
- Sexual abuse. Sexual
actions against a child are abusive. Children are not capable of
granting consent, and when an adult engages in sexual activity with a
minor it is often charged as child abuse. The sexual acts do not have to
by physically forced by the adult, and can be the result of lying,
coercion, bribery, or demands.
- Neglect. Accidental
harm to a child is not considered abusive. However, accidents are not
the same as careless or negligent actions, and such actions are covered
under abuse laws. Leaving children in a home to care for themselves, for
example, can be an abusive act if the children are too young to look
after themselves. Failing to provide regular medical care, adequate
shelter, or emotional support can also count as abuse.
Many state laws include verbal threats and emotional abuse as child
abuse. In these situations, the child does not need to suffer any actual
physical harm for an act to be abusive. A caregiver who, for example,
repeatedly humiliates or terrorizes a child has committed child abuse.
Parents who subject their children to the sight of physical or verbal
attacks may also commit child abuse.
abuse laws often allow for both misdemeanor and felony punishments for
anyone convicted of the crime. The difference between the two often
depends on the type of harm a child experiences. For example, an adult
that sexually abuses a child is typically charged with a felony, while a
couple who exposes their child to domestic violence may be charged with
While state laws differ significantly, a conviction for child abuse typically brings with it one of several criminal penalties.
- Fines. A
conviction for child abuse can result in a substantial fine. State laws
differ widely on the fines imposed for a child abuse conviction, but
fines of several hundred to several thousands of dollars are common.
Jail or prison sentences are very common with child abuse convictions. A
misdemeanor conviction may bring a few days, months, or up to a year in
jail, while felony convictions can easily result in sentences of 10
years or more in prison.
- Probation. Probation
sentences are often included with child abuse sentences. A court, for
example, may give a probation sentence to a couple who exposed their
child to domestic violence. Probation terms typically last at least six
months but can last a year or more. If a person violates the probation
terms in that time, the court may then impose the original jail
sentence, fines, or additional probation.
- Other Penalties. When
child abuse involves a parent, guardian, or someone with legal custody
of a child, a court can also limit parental rights. Courts can impose
restraining orders, place a child in protective custody with a state
agency or foster family, require that the parent only visit the child
with the supervision of a court appointed monitor, order individual or
family therapy, or even remove a parent’s right to care for the child.
abuse is a very serious charge, one that can not only result in
criminal or civil sanctions, but one which can lead to ostracism and
loss of reputation. State laws on child abuse can be very difficult to
apply in each situation, which is why anyone facing child abuse charges
should consult a qualified local attorney as soon as possible. Only an
experienced criminal defense attorney is qualified to give you legal
advice about your child abuse case.