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Child Abuse and Neglect

What is Child Abuse?

Criminal child abuse takes many forms and can include any kind of mistreatment inflicted upon a child. It typically includes physical, emotional, sexual, medical abuse or neglect. Each type of abuse can result in both criminal prosecution and civil penalties. 

Of course, all states have laws against assault, battery and homicide that would apply to physical attacks against children. However, many states also have laws that specifically define these crimes when committed against children as child abuse. These laws differ in their particular language from state to state, but they would all prohibit and criminalize any kind of cruelty towards children, including physical battery, mental abuse and neglect. 

Child abuse and neglect is also dealt with through a system of civil laws and government agencies that work to to remove abused children from the homes in which they suffer abuse or otherwise protect the child and help provide treatment for families. This article deals mostly with criminal law regarding child abuse.

Child abuse and neglect laws make it illegal for parents, guardians, and custodians of children to physical harm their child, or to engage in conduct that would be destructive to the child's upbringing. Under neglect laws, this also includes the failure to provide the child with proper physical, educational and medical necessities. In some jurisdictions, this can also include emotional neglect as well.

One way to think about abuse and neglect laws is that with abuse, the parent is actually taking action that harms the child, such as striking them, or subjecting them to harsh punishment. With neglect violations, the parent is failing to fulfill one or more of their duties to the child as a parent. 

Persons other than a biological parent can be found liable for abuse or neglect, so long as they have legal responsibility for the child. This can include legal guardians, custodians, and supervisors of the child. 

Are Child Abuse and Neglect Laws the Same in Each State?

Child abuse and neglect laws may be slightly different from state to state. What is different is the amount of government or agency intervention that each jurisdiction enforces. For example, one state may intervene in an abuse incident at an earlier stage, and may transfer custody of the child to a third party at an earlier stage. Or, one state may enforce stricter measures when it comes to protection the child.

However, most states and jurisdictions would agree that the following conduct would be considered child abuse/neglect:

  • Physically striking or harming the child
  • Subjecting the child to unusual or harsh treatment
  • Exposing the child to traumatizing conditions, such domestic violence, drug abuse, or inappropriate behavior
  • Assaulting the child in a sexual or inappropriate manner
  • Failing to provide for the child's basic needs, such as food/clothing/shelter, and other needs like educational expenses

What Is Physical Abuse?

Child abuse laws make physical attacks against children or actions that result in harm to a child criminal. Both minor injuries, such as bruises, and serious injuries, such as burns or broken bones, are all abusive if the adult intends to inflict them on a child. Even if the adult does not intend to cause the injury, or causes no injury at all, intentionally assaulting a child is criminal.

Some states categorize child abuse as first degree or second degree. For example, in the state of Maryland, the felony of first degree child abuse requires proof of three elements as follows:

  • The crime must be committed by a person who is a family member by blood or marriage, a household member, or a person with permanent or temporary custody, care or responsibility for a child;.
  • The person must cause abuse to a child by inflicting cruel or inhuman treatment, or a malicious act which causes physical injury and demonstrates a threat or harm to the child's health or welfare.
  • The abuse must result in severe physical injury or death; “severe physical injury” means starvation, brain injury or bleeding within the skull (e.g., a concussion) or any other physical injury that puts the minor at a substantial risk of death, causes permanent or serious disfigurement, impairment of bodily functions, or loss of function in any body part.

In Maryland, conviction of first degree felony child abuse that results in the death of a child is punishable by up to 40 years in state prison.

Second degree felony child abuse in Maryland involves the same definition of perpetrators who:

  • Inflict cruel or inhuman treatment, or engage in a malicious act;
  • That causes physical injury and demonstrates a threat or harm to a child's health or welfare.

In Maryland, conviction of second degree felony child abuse is punishable by up to 15 years in state prison.

In Florida, child abuse is a so-called “third degree” felony that is punishable by up to five years in a state prison. There are three ways to commit child abuse in Florida as follows:

  • Intentionally inflicting physical or mental injury upon a child,
  • Committing an intentional act that could reasonably be expected to result in physical or mental injury to a child; or
  • Actively encouraging another person to commit an act that results or could be expected to result in physical or mental injury to a child.

Note that under the third definition, no physical contact with a child is necessary for conviction; simply encouraging another person to commit any act that results or could be expected to result in physical or mental injury to a child is sufficient for a charge of child abuse.

The punishment for conviction of child abuse in Florida ranges from a year in jail to life in prison and imposition of the death penalty is even possible in the worst cases.

So, it is clear that the crime of child abuse varies greatly from state to state. However, in most states, the following conduct would qualify as child abuse:

  • Hitting with a belt, paddle or object other than a hand; spanking is generally not against the law;
  • Pinching hard enough to leave a mark that does not go away within seconds;
  • Burning, for example with cigarettes, a lighter, an iron or the stove top burner;
  • Biting hard enough to leave a bruise or break the skin;
  • Pushing into walls or knocking to the floor, choking, kicking or punching.

What Is Mental or Emotional Abuse?

Many states encompass verbal threats and emotional abuse in their definitions of 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 abuse may also commit child abuse.

A child is being emotionally abused when a parent, another person in the household or a caretaker engages in the following:

  • Calling the child names that are demeaning or degrading;
  • Telling the child that they are worthless, stupid or “a mistake;”
  • Telling the child that they are never good enough or can't do anything right;
  • Telling the child they wish the child had never been born;
  • Threatening the child with physical abuse or threatening to physically abuse others in the household.

What Is Child Sexual Abuse?

Children are below the age of consent so when an adult engages in any kind of sexual activity with a minor, it can be charged as child abuse. Using physical force in committing sexual abuse is not necessary for the act to qualify as abuse; sexual abuse can be the result of obtaining compliance with sexual conduct by lying, coercion, bribery or a simple demand. A child is a person under the age of 18.

A child is being sexually abused when a person:

  • Improperly touches a child's private parts;
  • Shows a child improper nude pictures;
  • Takes pictures of the child when the child is undressed;
  • Entices the child with the intent of sexually abusing the child;
  • Engages in explicit sexual conduct with a child.

What Are Child Maltreatment and Child Neglect?

If a child suffers injury due to an accident, such as a fall off a bike, it is not considered abusive. However, accidents are not the same as carelessness or negligence, and such actions are covered under state abuse laws. For example, leaving children under a certain age that is usually specified in law at home to care for themselves without adult supervision can qualify as abuse or neglect. 

Failing to provide regular medical care when it is needed, adequate shelter, or adequate nutrition can also count as abuse.  A home that is extremely neglected, unclean, or infested with vermin can qualify as abuse by neglect.

The law requires parents to provide their children with a safe, stable home, adequate nutrition, appropriate clothing, education, medical care and supervision. Failure to fulfill these obligations can set a person up for criminal charge of child neglect.

Can I Be Held Civilly Liable for Child Abuse?

Civil consequences usually involve removal of the child from the home in which abuse has taken place by an agency of a local government that offers child protective services. A court can limit parental rights short of removing a child from the home, although a court could remove a child and place them in protective custody with a state agency or foster family. Or a court can require a parent to visit a child only with the supervision of a court-appointed monitor. These measures are all considered civil remedies for child abuse.

It is also possible that a child victim could bring a civil suit for damages for assault and battery or intentional infliction of emotional distress against a perpetrator.

What Are the Legal Consequences of Child Abuse?

Child abuse is a grave crime, and as such, a child abuse charge can result in serious legal consequences. These consequences could include:

  • Fines: Fines as a criminal punishment for child abuse vary by jurisdiction and may range from a few hundred to thousands of dollars. Some factors determining fine amounts include the severity of the offense and whether the offense was repeated;
  • Jail Time: Jail time is another criminal punishment for child abuse. The severity of the offense also determines the length of a child abuse jail sentence and if it was a repeated offense. Misdemeanor child abuse is punishable by up to one year in jail, while a felony child abuse charge is punishable by sentences that can exceed one year or five to ten years in some cases;
  • Restrictions of Parental or Custodial Rights: A judge may limit parental rights through a restraining or protective order. They may do this by placing the child in protective custody with the state or requiring court-supervised visits between the parent and child. Restraining or protective orders intend to prevent the abuser from coming in contact with the child they have abused.

In extreme child abuse cases, a judge may entirely terminate a parent's rights. Courts would rather keep the family unit intact and consider termination of parental rights a last resort. However, a court's main priority is the child's best interests. Once parental rights have been terminated, it is rare for them to be reinstated.

Are There Any Defenses to Child Abuse?

Defending against a child abuse charge can be difficult, especially if it involves the testimony of a child. While child abuse laws aim to protect children, the justice system may vindicate those who are wrongfully accused.

As previously mentioned, child abuse is a serious offense and carries heavy legal penalties. Depending on the specific circumstances, there are a few situations in which a person accused of child abuse can assert a defense. These include:

  • False Child Abuse Claim: A false child abuse claim is when a person files a false child abuse claim with their state's child protection agency. This can especially occur if the filer does not understand the legal definition of child abuse;
  • Lack of Evidence: Accusations of abuse must be supported by evidence such as witness testimony or marks on the child's body indicating physical abuse;
  • No Causation: A person must directly cause a child's injuries to be liable for abuse. If the injuries result from an accident or another cause, the accused may have a defense;
  • Parental Right to Discipline: Depending on state laws, parents may have the right to discipline their child using methods considered child abuse by some. Parents often have the right to use physical conduct up to a certain extent. So long as the discipline is reasonable and causes no bodily injury, parents have the right to discipline their children.
    • The question of how a parent disciplines a child, such as through spanking or threat of spanking, is the subject of many child abuse cases. In some cases, a parent can raise the defense of parental privilege and claim they had the right to discipline a child under their authority reasonably. However, if a child's injuries are more serious than minor bruising due to the discipline, the parental privilege may not apply.
  • Religious beliefs: Parents may claim an exemption to child abuse for religious reasons when a child dies from a parent's failure to seek medical care for their sick child. The religious exemption is a controversial defense in all but a handful of cases. The religious exemption allows parents to escape child abuse charges if they pray over their sick children rather than take them to a doctor.
  • Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSBP): In rare cases, an individual accused of child abuse may raise the defense called MSBP. MSBP is used to describe incidents where a child caregiver lies about or promotes illnesses in their children to draw attention or sympathy to themselves. This defense usually requires proof of psychological or medical data. MSBP is a type of insanity defense.

Sometimes, parents are falsely accused of child abuse based on non-accidental situations, such as when a child fights with another child and injures themselves. A child may have pre-existing medical conditions that contribute to their injuries. For example, “brittle bone disease” has been raised as a defense to show that a child's injuries result from a disorder that causes a child's bones to break easily and not child abuse.

Child abuse defenses essentially focus on the question of causation and whether the accused of child abuse was responsible or legally culpable for the actions that caused harm to the child.
False claims of child abuse are often considered a frivolous legal claim or abuse of the judicial system. False claims can also lead to legal consequences, such as civil lawsuits against the filer. 

Should I Hire an Attorney for Help with Child Abuse Defense Laws?

Child abuse claims are taken very seriously. Child abuse laws intend to protect children and minors from harmful conduct. These laws also contain provisions protecting parents and guardians from false claims. 

Child abuse and neglect laws can sometimes be very complicated. They are generally enforced very strictly, since the safety and well-being of the child is often at stake. If you need assistance with any child abuse or neglect issues, you should speak with a family lawyer immediately. Your attorney can help represent you in court and can explain how the laws in your area might affect your case.

If a child abuse claim has been filed against you, it is in your best interests to immediately consult with a skilled and knowledgeable family lawyer in your area. An experienced family attorney can educate you on your state's laws regarding child abuse. They can also help you determine what types of defenses may be available in your specific situation. Additionally, they can represent you in court, if necessary.

There may be several child abuse defenses available depending on the circumstances in your case. Whether you've been accused of abuse or need to file a claim for abuse, seek legal help today by contacting an attorney near you.