One of the most difficult things about child abuse is that it is very difficult to define. Parents have historically been given a great deal of deference on how they may discipline their children. Today, much of America has become uncomfortable with corporal punishment but it is often legal. State and local child protective services departments are often left to determine on a case-by-case basis if a parental action is appropriate discipline or abuse.
That said, most state legislatures have attempted to define abuse and looking at those definitions give you some sense of the line between appropriate and inappropriate conduct:
- Alabama Code Sec. 26-14-1: ‘Abuse’ means harm or threatened harm to the health or welfare of a child through: Nonaccidental physical injury, sexual abuse or attempted sexual abuse, sexual exploitation or attempted sexual exploitation.
- Arkansas Code Sec. 12-18-103: ‘Abuse’ means any of the following acts or omissions: Extreme or repeated cruelty to the child, engaging in conduct creating a realistic and serious threat of death, permanent or temporary disfigurement, or impairment of any bodily organ, any injury that is inconsistent with the history given, any nonaccidental physical injury.
- Colorado Stat. Sec. 19-1-103: ‘Abuse’ or ‘child abuse or neglect’ means an act or omission that threatens the health or welfare of a child in one of the following categories: skin bruising, bleeding, malnutrition, failure to thrive, burns, fracture of any bone, subdural hematoma, soft tissue swelling, or death … A controlled substance is manufactured in the presence of a child, on the premises where a child is found, or where a child resides. A child tests positive at birth for either a schedule I or schedule II controlled substance.
- Delaware Code Title 16, Sec. 902: ‘Abuse’ or ‘abused child’ means that a person has care, custody, or control of a child and causes or inflicts: Physical injury through unjustified force, emotional abuse, torture, exploitation, maltreatment or mistreatment.
- Georgia Code Sec. 19-7-5(b): ‘Child abuse’ means physical injury or death inflicted upon a child by a parent or caregiver by other than accidental means.
- Iowa Stat. Sec. 232.68: ‘Child abuse’ or ‘abuse’ means any nonaccidental physical injury or injury that is inconsistent with the history given of it, suffered by a child as the result of acts or omissions of a person responsible for the care of the child.
- Kansas Stat. Sec. 28-2202: ‘Physical, mental, or emotional abuse’ means the infliction of physical, mental, or emotional harm, or the causing of a deterioration of a child, and may include, but shall not be limited to, maltreatment or exploiting a child to the extent that the child’s health or emotional well-being is endangered.
- Missouri Stat. Sec. 210.110: ‘Abuse’ means any physical injury inflicted on a child by other than accidental means by those responsible for the child’s care, custody, and control.
- New Mexico Stat. Sec. 32A-4-2: ‘Abused child’ means a child: Who has suffered or is at risk of suffering serious harm because of the action or inaction of the child’s parent, guardian, or custodian.
- North Carolina Stat. Sec. 7B-101: ‘Abused juvenile’ means any child younger than age 18 whose parent, guardian, custodian, or caregiver: Inflicts or allows to be inflicted upon the child a serious physical injury by other than accidental means; creates or allows to be created a substantial risk of serious physical injury to the child by other than accidental means; uses or allows to be used upon the child cruel or grossly inappropriate procedures or cruel or grossly inappropriate devices to modify behavior; encourages, directs, or approves of delinquent acts involving moral turpitude committed by the juvenile; commits or allows to be committed the offense of human trafficking, involuntary servitude, or sexual servitude against the child.
- Ohio Stat. 2151.031: Abused child’ includes any child who: Is endangered as defined… Exhibits evidence of any physical or mental injury or death, inflicted by other than accidental means, that is inconsistent with the history given of it…
- Pennsylvania Title 23, Sec. 6303: The term ‘child abuse’ shall mean intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly doing any of the following: Causing bodily injury to a child through any recent act or failure to act, Fabricating, feigning, or intentionally exaggerating or inducing a medical symptom or disease that results in a potentially harmful medical evaluation or treatment to the child through any recent act…
- Utah Code Sec. 78A-6-105: ‘Abuse’ means: Non Accidental harm of a child, Threatened harm of a child, Sexual exploitation, Sexual abuse…
- Wyoming Stat. Sec. 14-3-202: ‘Abuse’ means inflicting or causing physical injury, harm, or imminent danger to the physical health or welfare of a child other than by accidental means, including excessive or unreasonable corporal punishment.
Also Read: Child Abuse Laws
As you can see, some states have tried to be very specific while others have tried to give more latitude to state agents on the ground. Either way, it is best to assume that any action taken by an adult that causes serious harm to a child can be punished as abuse.