Child abuse has historically been a very difficult topic for the legal system to figure out. This is because parents have traditionally been given enormous authority to discipline their children. Much of American law today can be traced back to the British Common Law, as explained by a publication from the 1700s called Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Law of England. Blackstone pointed out that in many cultures a father has the power of life and death over his children under the principle that, because the father gave his child life, the father is free to take his child’s life away.
The British Common law formed the basis of the American legal system
The British Common law that formed the basis of the American legal system was “much more moderate,” according to Blackstone. He said that parents in England may use only the force necessary to keep a child “in order and obedience” and may lawfully correct a child only in a “reasonable” manner. The flip side of this power is that parents had three obligations to their children under the Common Law. This included providing children with “maintenance” (food and shelter), protection, and education. The idea of legal protections for children really began with “Elizabethan Poor Laws,” which took poor kids away from their families and placed them in apprenticeships. By the time the American legal system began taking shape in the late 1700s, parental rights were seen as very important and parents that were adequately providing for their children were rarely prosecuted for child abuse no matter how harsh their discipline tactics.
Modern American legal protections against physical child abuse really began in the 1960s. A number of blockbuster stories about battered children exploded into the public conscience and politicians took note. Child protective services departments were set up in every state and the federal government mandated the reporting of abuse by many professionals, like doctors and teachers. In the 1970s, awareness regarding child sexual abuse began to spread and the legal system became more aggressive in policing it. While sexual abuse can be hard to detect, it is relatively easy to define. Drawing the line between appropriate discipline and physical abuse has remained a challenge, though.
Also Read: Child Abuse Laws
Supporting child-protection efforts
The federal government has supported child-protection efforts, but the federal legal system has largely refused to get involved in family law issues like child abuse. So the line between acceptable discipline and abuse has largely been drawn by state officials. Most state legislatures have tried to define abuse, but they struggle to offer a precise definition. Most define abuse as anything that causes serious physical injury to a child. Some have tried to be more specific, for example by banning any discipline that interferes with a child’s breathing. Many states still specifically allow “reasonable” corporal punishment of a child, just as Blackstone stated over 300 years ago.
The line between “reasonable” corporal punishment and abuse is typically drawn by state and local child protective services department. They typically look at factors like whether an injury will have long-term consequences. They also are particularly concerned with chronic abuse, as parents that accidentally spank too hard one time are given more leniency than repeat offenders. Child protective services departments also look at cultural factors and want to see that discipline is tied to misbehavior, and not just an unprovoked outburst from a parent. Because of the great amount of discretion held by these state officials, the practical definition of abuse is constantly changing with social norms.