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What is the true definition of child abuse?

The four types of child abuse and neglect are:

  • Physical Abuse
  • Child Neglect
  • Sexual Abuse
  • Mental Injury or Emotional/mental abuse

Legal Definition of Child Abuse

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (Public Law 100-294) defines child abuse and neglect as the physical or mental injury, sexual abuse or exploitation, negligent treatment, or maltreatment: of a child (a person under the age of 18, unless the child protection law of the State in which the child resides specifies a younger age for cases not involving sexual abuse) by a person (including any employee of a residential facility or any staff person providing out-of-home care) who is responsible for the child's welfare under circumstances which indicate that the child's health or welfare is harmed or threatened thereby.

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act defines sexual abuse as:

"the use, employment, persuasion, inducement, enticement or coercion of any child to engage in, or assist any other person to engage in, any sexually explicit conduct (or any simulation of such conduct) for the purpose of producing any visual depiction of such conduct, or rape, molestation, prostitution, or other form of sexual exploitation of children, or incest with children, the withholding of medically indicated treatment for an infant's life-threatening conditions, the failure to respond to the infant's life-threatening conditions by providing treatment (including appropriate nutrition, hydration, and medication) which, in the treating physician's or physicians' reasonable medical judgement, will be most likely to be effective in ameliorating or correcting all such conditions..."

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is when a person inflicts physical harm on a child by punching, beating, kicking, biting, burning, or otherwise causing the child physical pain. Although many times the parent or caregiver did not mean to hurt the child, physical abuse can be caused by over-discipline or physical punishment that is inappropriate to the child's age.

Physical abuse is when by inflicting physical injury by punching, beating, kicking, biting, burning, or otherwise harming a child. Although the injury is not an accident, the parent or caretaker may not have intended to hurt the child. The injury may have resulted from over-discipline or physical punishment that is inappropriate to the child's age.

Child Neglect

Child neglect is characterized by failure to provide for the child's basic needs. Neglect can be physical, educational, or emotional. The latest national incidence study defines these three types of neglect as follows:

Physical neglect includes refusal of or delay in seeking health care, abandonment, expulsion from home or not allowing a runaway to return home, and inadequate supervision.

Educational neglect includes permission of chronic truancy, failure to enroll a child of mandatory school age, and inattention to a special educational need. Emotional neglect includes such actions as chronic or extreme spouse abuse in the child's presence, permission of drug or alcohol use by the child, and refusal of or failure to provide needed psychological care.

It is very important to distinguish between willful neglect and a parent's or caretaker's failure to provide necessities of life because of poverty or cultural norms. For example, willful neglect is likely to trigger Child Protective Services (CPS) intervention. A parent who is unable to provide the necessities of life due to poverty financial assistance, health services, housing , or other basic services.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual Abuse and Sexual Assault - What's the difference?

Sexual Abuse:

  • Is a sexual act committed on a child by a person responsible for the care of a child (for example a parent, a baby-sitter, a day care provider etc...)

Sexual Assault:

  • Is sexual act committed by a "stranger". Sexual assault is handled solely by the police and criminal courts.
  • These sexual acts may include fondling a child's genitals, intercourse, incest, rape, sodomy, exhibitionism, and sexual exploitation.


Many experts believe that sexual abuse is the most under-reported form of child maltreatment because of the secrecy or "conspiracy of silence" which so often characterizes these cases.

Mental Injury

This form of child abuse and neglect includes acts or omissions by the parents or other person responsible for the child's care that have caused, or could cause, serious behavioral, cognitive, emotional, or mental disorders

In some cases of emotional/mental abuse the acts of parents or other caretakers alone, without any harm evident in the child's behavior or condition, are sufficient to warrant Child Protective Services (CPS) intervention. For example, the parents/caretakers use extreme or bizarre forms of punishment, such as torture or confinement of a child in a dark closet. For less severe acts, such as habitual scapegoating, belittling, or rejecting treatment, demonstrable harm to the child is often required for CPS to intervene.

Although any of the forms of child maltreatment may be found alone, we often find them occurring in combination. And, emotional abuse is almost always present when other form are identified..


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