Child abuse is a complicated issue that is difficult to deal with. Each state has its own system, and laws in different parts of the country are shaped by local cultures. The federal government has shaped state laws to a great degree, however, and as a result child abuse laws throughout the U.S. have the same basic structure for defining abuse, reporting it, and then investigating and addressing it.
Definitions of abuse
The exact definitions vary from state to state, but as a general matter any serious non-accidental harm to a child is going to be considered abuse. This means, for example, that spanking a child is generally legal, even if you accidentally leave a mark one time. But repeated spankings that cause serious bruising are not going to be okay.
All states have imposed an obligation on at least some individuals to report suspected child abuse. In some states, anyone can be punished for failing to report abuse. In other states, professionals like doctors, teachers, and social workers must report suspected abuse to the proper authorities. If you have seen something and are not sure what to do, you can contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD to get some guidance and be connected to the proper authorities. This system is run by the federal government and staffed around the clock by trained crisis counselors.
Child protective services investigations and outcomes
Reports of abuse in every state go to some sort of child protective services (“CPS”) department that will investigate. CPS investigators will often visit the home of a suspected abuser and interview people that have contact with the child in question. These investigators will be tasked with drawing the line between acceptable discipline and abuse that must be corrected. CPS investigators will generally investigate every report of suspected abuse and then determine either that the suspicion was founded or unfounded. This is not necessarily the same as a finding of guilty or not guilty in criminal court. The goal is to protect the child, not punish a parent.
In general, CPS departments are seeking to keep a child safe within his or her own family. CPS will only remove a child from a home in the most serious circumstances. Even then, the removal may only be temporary while a parent is given some sort of treatment or counseling to stop the abuse. The most common outcome of an investigation is that counseling or treatment is either recommended or required, and then for some period CPS will monitor the home to ensure the children in question are safe.
Related: Child Abuse Laws by State
Loss of parental rights
In truly extreme situations, parents can lose their right to be involved in the life of their child. These generally include cases of complete abandonment or extreme abuse. The state will not usually take this action. More commonly, parental rights are terminated when a new family wants to adopt a child that was either neglected or abused in the past.