Child Abuse: Laws & Criminal Penalties

A conviction for child abuse can mean prison time and substantial fines.

By | Updated by Kelly Martin, Attorney
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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.

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. 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.

What Acts Constitute Child Abuse?

All states have laws that govern physical attacks on people of any age—such as assault, battery, or homicide laws—but most also have laws that specifically address child abuse. Though the language of these laws differs widely, they all prohibit various kinds of cruelty towards a child, such as physical assaults, mental abuse, and neglect. Most states also have crimes that specifically address other abusive situations involving children, such as sexual abuse. Throughout the U.S., child abuse laws cover the same types of conduct regardless of the state in which the abuse occurs.

Assault of a Child

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 on the child. Even if the adult doesn't intend to cause the injury, or causes no injury at all, intentionally assaulting a child is usually abusive.

Unreasonable or Excessive Discipline

Child abuse charges often arise out of cases where a parent or caregiver attempts to discipline a child. Under the law, an adult can use reasonable actions to discipline a child, but unreasonable acts are usually considered abusive. However, what's reasonable in one situation may not be reasonable in another.

For example, all states allow spanking to some degree, but many child abuse cases arise from spanking that's unreasonable under the circumstances. To decide whether a parent's discipline was reasonable, courts consider factors like the child's age, the severity of the actions, the extent of any harm or potential harm the child suffered, and even the sociocultural background of the family.

Child Sex Abuse

Sexual actions against a child are abusive. Children are not capable of consenting to any sexual acts, and when an adult engages in sexual activity with a minor, it's a serious crime. Such offenses are often charged as child abuse, child molestation, and child sexual abuse

Child Neglect or Endangerment

Accidental harm to a child is not considered abusive. But 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 necessary medical care, shelter, or hygiene can also count as abuse.

Threats and Emotional Abuse

Many state laws include verbal threats and emotional abuse as child abuse. In these situations, the child doesn't need to suffer any 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 (such as in domestic violence situations) may also commit child abuse. In these types of situations, the conduct is abuse because it causes emotional trauma, which can have serious long-lasting effects.

Is Child Abuse Usually a Felony or a Misdemeanor?

Child abuse can be either a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the seriousness of the conduct. Abuse that causes physical harm or substantial pain is usually charged as a felony. Likewise, sexual abuse, or neglect that significantly endangers the child's health or welfare, are also normally felonies. Less serious conduct might be charged as a misdemeanor. For example, an adult who beats or starves a child would typically be charged with a felony, while a couple who exposes their child to domestic violence might be charged with a misdemeanor.

Failure to Report Child Abuse

People who know of or reasonably suspect child abuse often have a legal duty to report it.

In all states, "mandatory" or "mandated" reporters must report suspected child abuse. Mandatory reporters typically include teachers, doctors, childcare providers, police officers, and similar professionals who have a protective role with the children they come into contact with.

And in quite a few states, the law is that anyone who suspects child abuse must report it to authorities.

Failure to report suspected child abuse is normally a misdemeanor. A list of each state's reporting rules is available through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Potential Defenses to a Child Abuse Charge

In addition to some of the common defenses that could apply in any criminal case, some specific defenses might apply in a child abuse case, depending on the facts.

False accusations. Unfortunately, people sometimes make false allegations of child abuse. The most common scenario involves custody disputes where one parent is trying to keep the other parent from gaining custody. Or, a misguided teenager might claim they're abused to punish a parent they're angry with. In these types of situations, a person charged with child abuse might be able to show that the allegations are false.

Injuries not caused by abuse. Scraped knees, elbows, and the occasional bump on the forehead are practically a rite of passage for the average child learning to walk, run, or ride a bike. Child abuse investigators are trained to know the difference between accidental and abusive injuries, but they might not always get it right.

Also, some children have birthmarks that look like bruising or have medical conditions that make them bruise or suffer broken bones very easily (such as during burping or a diaper change). And sometimes, internal head injuries are mistakenly labeled "abusive head trauma" (previously known as "shaken baby syndrome") when they were actually caused by an accidental fall or another non-abusive event or condition.

Right to discipline. As noted above, parents have the right to discipline their children as they see fit (within limits). A parent who's charged with abuse for actions intended to correct their child's behavior might be able to argue that they disciplined rather than abused their child. The success or failure of the defense will come down to whether the judge or jury finds that the discipline was reasonable. The defense won't likely work if the discipline caused any injury.

Religious Exemption. Many states' child abuse laws have exceptions for parents who don't seek medical treatment for their child because it's against their religion. The exception is intended to make sure people retain their First Amendment right to freedom of religion. Some states say there is no First Amendment right to refuse medical care to children and don't allow the exception. In some states where it's allowed, it can only be used in misdemeanor cases. But in other states, it's allowed in felony cases. Some states even allow it in homicide cases where children died because their parents didn't seek medical care.

A person claiming this defense usually must show that they withheld medical treatment because they relied on the spiritual healing practices (usually prayer) of an established church or religion. Depending on the state law, they might also have to show that an accredited practitioner of the church administered the spiritual healing.

What Are the Criminal Penalties for Child Abuse?

While state laws differ significantly, a conviction for child abuse can result in one or more criminal penalties. Here are the main ones.

  • Incarceration. 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 lead to several years in prison.
  • Probation. Probation sentences are often included with less serious child abuse sentences. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 and parenting classes, or even remove a parent's right to care for the child.

Seek Legal Advice

Given how serious a child abuse charge is, no one should face these accusations without legal help. If you've been charged with child abuse or are under investigation for it, consult a qualified local attorney as soon as possible. An experienced criminal defense attorney can give you legal advice about your case, advise you on how to proceed, and represent you in court if it comes to that.

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