What is Child Abuse?

What is Child Abuse?

Parents who abuse, neglect, or abandon children can be regarded as unfit. Where the children have another fit parent, the offending parent can forfeit custody or visitation rights; in other instances, the parent may forfeit parental rights, either temporarily or forever.

When a parent is abusive or neglectful or is abusing substances or otherwise failing to care for their children properly, a family member can intervene and care for the child under an informal or formal guardianship, or the child can be placed in foster care while the state tries to help the parent work through the issues and reunite with the child. If these efforts are unsuccessful, the child is often freed for adoption. In extreme cases, parents may be charged with a criminal offense.

Child abuse is a criminal offense

Every state makes child abuse (physical, sexual, or emotional) a criminal offense and requires healthcare practitioners, teachers, and other professionals with an understanding of child development to report suspected cases of abuse to law enforcement or a child protective services agency. Penalties are severe for anyone who abuses a child (or allows a child to be abused by someone else) and can include lengthy prison sentences.

Perhaps less serious than child abuse, child endangerment is also a criminal offense. Examples of child endangerment include leaving a child alone in a motor vehicle, inflicting physical punishment that causes bodily injury, manufacturing or selling drugs in the presence of a child, or leaving a young child unsupervised in an unsafe area.

Also Read: How to Avoid Child Abuse?


Likewise, parents who physically abandon a young child may be charged with a criminal offense. However, every state has a “safe haven” or “legal abandonment” statute that designates certain people or places as drop-off locations where parents can go to leave a child without fear of prosecution––typically, emergency responders, hospitals, or fire stations. These laws usually only apply to very young babies—in some states, the child must be less than 72 hours old, while other states extend the age all the way up to 3 months.

Nevertheless, whenever a parent completely abandons a child—providing no care or financial support—and there’s no other adult to take care of the child, the state’s foster care system will step in, unless there is a relative available to whom guardianship can be given.

Home alone

Many states frown upon parents leaving children under 12 at home alone. Depending on the state you live in and its child protective policies, leaving a young child home alone for any period of time may be considered neglect.

But age isn’t the sole factor––the time of day, the amount of time the child will be left alone, as well as the safety of the neighborhood, are also important factors that will be taken into consideration.

Statutory Rape

In every single state, having sexual intercourse or being intimate with someone who is under a given age is not only child abuse, it is a criminal offense referred to as “statutory rape”.

There is, however, no nationwide age at which a child is considered to be capable of giving consent to sex. Instead, most states vary the age of consent based on the difference in age between the “victim” and the defendant.

For example, one state might specify 16 as the age of consent, but require there to be an age differential of four years or more before the activity is considered to be illegal. In such a state, sex between a 17-year-old and a 15-year-old would be legal, but sex between a 15-year-old and a 21-year-old would be illegal.

Also Read: Child Abuse Laws by State


In other states, the actual age of consent may vary depending on the age of the perpetrator. In these states, the normal age of consent (16) may drop to 13 if the perpetrator is less than four years older and under the age of 19.

Moreover, other states specify a minimum age for the perpetrator, making it illegal to have sex with someone under the age of consent but only if the perpetrator is over 18 years old.

Finally, in most states, statutory rape laws will not allow the perpetrator to argue in his or her defense that he or she reasonably assumed that the victim was over the age of consent.

To learn more about the laws governing child abuse in your state, contact a local family law attorney.

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