Child Abuse: Laws & Criminal Penalties

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

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?

While 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 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 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.

Unreasonable or Excessive Discipline

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 in light of the circumstances, 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.

Child Sex 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. Sexual abuse can be the result of lying, coercion, bribery, or demands—proving physical acts of force isn't necessary.

Child Neglect or Endangerment

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.

Threats and Emotional 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.

What Are the Criminal Penalties for Child Abuse?

Child 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 a misdemeanor.

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.
  • 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 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.

Seek Legal Advice

Child abuse is a very serious charge, one that can not only result in criminal or civil sanctions but can also lead to social exclusion 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. An experienced criminal defense attorney can give you legal advice about your child abuse case.

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