banner

About Child Abuse

Here you will find an in-depth definition of child abuse and neglect. The International Child Advocacy Network (YesICAN) takes its definition of child abuse and neglect from both the United States Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) and the World Health Organization.

For a simplified definition, check out YesICAN’s definition of child abuse, simply stated.

Defining Child Maltreatment
Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA)

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act* 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 exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.

For CAPTA, the term child is someone who has not reached the age of 18; or (except in the case of sexual abuse) the age specified by the child protection law of the State in which the child resides;

Within the minimum standards set by CAPTA, each State is responsible for providing its own definitions of child abuse and neglect. Most States recognize four major types of maltreatment: neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse. Although any of the forms of child maltreatment may be found separately, they often occur in combination.

The examples provided below are for general informational purposes only. Not all States' definitions will include all of the examples listed below, and individual States' definitions may cover additional situations not mentioned here.

Neglect

Neglect is failure to provide for a child's basic needs. Neglect may be:

  • Physical (e.g., failure to provide necessary food or shelter, or lack of appropriate supervision)
  • Medical (e.g., failure to provide necessary medical or mental health treatment)2
  • Educational (e.g., failure to educate a child or attend to special education needs)
  • Emotional (e.g., inattention to a child's emotional needs, failure to provide psychological care, or permitting the child to use alcohol or other drugs)

These situations do not always mean a child is neglected. Sometimes cultural values, the standards of care in the community, and poverty may be contributing factors, indicating the family is in need of information or assistance. When a family fails to use information and resources, and the child's health or safety is at risk, then child welfare intervention may be required.

Physical Abuse

Physical Abuse is physical injury (ranging from minor bruises to severe fractures or death) as a result of punching, beating, kicking, biting, shaking, throwing, stabbing, choking, hitting (with a hand, stick, strap, or other object), burning, or otherwise harming a child. Such injury is considered abuse regardless of whether the caretaker intended to hurt the child.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual Abuse includes activities by a parent or caretaker such as fondling a child's genitals, penetration, incest, rape, sodomy, indecent exposure, and exploitation through prostitution or the production of pornographic materials.

CAPTA defines the term "sexual abuse" as: “the employment, use, persuasion, inducement, enticement, or coercion of any child to engage in, or assist any other person to engage in, any sexually explicit conduct or simulation of such conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct; or the rape, and in cases of caretaker or inter-familial relationships, statutory rape, molestation, prostitution, or other form of sexual exploitation of children, or incest with children."

Emotional Abuse

Emotional Abuse, (also known as: verbal abuse, mental abuse, and psychological maltreatment), is a pattern of behavior that impairs a child's emotional development or sense of self-worth. This may include constant criticism, threats, or rejection, as well as withholding love, support, or guidance. Emotional abuse is often difficult to prove and, therefore, CPS may not be able to intervene without evidence of harm to the child. Emotional abuse is almost always present when other forms are identified.


* To obtain a free copy of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA)
or the definitions of child abuse and neglect, contact:

National Clearinghouse on
Child Abuse and Neglect Information

330 C Street, SW
Washington, DC 20447
(800) 394-3366 OR (703) 385-7565

Fax: (703) 385-3206
Website: nccanch.acf.hhs.gov
E-mail: nccanch@caliber.com