About the Issue

What is child abuse?

Child abuse is defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as any recent act or failure to act on that results in a child’s serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, exploitation or death. An act or failure to act that presents a risk of serious harm to a child is also considered to be child abuse.1

Child abuse is most commonly perpetrated by someone known to the child. He or she can be a caregiver, relative, family friend or any adult in a position of authority over the child. Abusers can also be strangers to the family and child. Although the government definition refers specifically to abuse enacted by parents and caregivers, any adult or older child can perpetrate abuse during a child’s youth. Peer-against-peer abuse can result in equally as serious emotional, physical and mental effects.

Each state provides its own definitions of child abuse within civil and criminal statutes, but they are informed by the following definitions of various forms of child abuse:

  • Physical. A non-accidental physical injury as a result of punching, beating, kicking, biting, shaking, throwing, stabbing, choking, hitting, burning or otherwise harming a child, that is inflicted by a parent, caregiver or other person who has responsibility for the child. Such injury is considered abuse regardless of whether the caregiver intended to hurt the child.
  • Sexual. A form of child abuse that includes any sexual act performed with a child by an adult or older child, with or without force or threat of force. It may start as seemingly innocent touching and progress to more serious acts, including verbal seduction or abuse, anal or vaginal intercourse, oral sex, sodomy, manual stimulation, direct threats, implied threats or other forms of abuse.
  • Emotional. A pattern of behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development or sense of self-worth. This form of abuse is almost always present when other forms of abuse are identified. It may include constant criticism, threats or rejection, as well as withholding love, support or guidance. Emotional abuse is often difficult to prove and, therefore, Child Protective services may not be able to intervene without clear evidence of harm to the child.2
  • Psychological. this is a pattern of behavior that affects a child’s sense of worth by communicating to the child that he or she is not worthy, loved or important.  Psychological abuse may include harsh demands, constant criticism, threats and yelling.3 Witnessing other violent incidents such as, domestic violence or school violence is also a form of psychological abuse due to the intense fear it produces and the indirect threat to a child’s safety.

What is neglect?

Child neglect is the leading form of child abuse in the United States and occurs when a caretaker fails to provide for a child's basic needs, which include adequate food, clothing, shelter, education, supervision medical care or safekeeping. As a result of such treatment, the child's physical, mental, or emotional development can be impaired.4

In this section:

1United States Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, “Child Abuse,” Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 2010, (2010), N.p.

2 Child Welfare Information Gateway, “What Is Child Abuse and Neglect?” Factsheets, (2008), www.childwelfare.gov.

3 Child Welfare Information Gateway, “What Is Child Abuse and Neglect?” Factsheets, (2008), www.childwelfare.gov.

4 Child Welfare Information Gateway via rainn.org, "What is Child Abuse and Neglect?" Factsheets, (2008), www.childwelfare.gov.

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