Learn how child abuse and neglect are defined in Federal law and State laws and find resources that distinguish between discipline and abuse.
Federal law definitions of child abuse and neglect
Federal legislation provides guidance to States by identifying a minimum set of acts or behaviors that define child abuse and neglect. The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) (42 U.S.C.A. § 5106g), as amended by the CAPTA Reauthorization Act of 2010, defines child abuse and neglect as, at 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."
This definition of child abuse and neglect refers specifically to parents and other caregivers. A "child" under this definition generally means a person who is younger than age 18 or who is not an emancipated minor.
While CAPTA provides definitions for sexual abuse and the special cases of neglect related to withholding or failing to provide medically indicated treatment, it does not provide specific definitions for other types of maltreatment such as physical abuse, neglect, or emotional abuse. While Federal legislation sets minimum standards for States that accept CAPTA funding, each State provides its own definitions of maltreatment within civil and criminal statutes.
State law definitions of child abuse and neglect
While Federal legislation sets minimum standards for States that accept Federal funding, each State is responsible for defining child maltreatment in State law. Definitions of child abuse and neglect are typically located in two places within each State's statutory code:
- Civil statutes provide definitions of child maltreatment to guide individuals who are mandated to identify and report suspected child abuse and determine the grounds for intervention by State child protection agencies and civil courts. Locate definitions for your State by conducting a State Statues Search on the Information Gateway website.
- Criminal statutes define those forms of child maltreatment that can subject an offender to arrest and prosecution in criminal courts.
Many States recognize four major types of maltreatment in their definitions: neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse or neglect.