Neglect and Abuse Laws: Overview

Under state laws, it is a criminal offense for parents and legal guardians to fail to meet children’s basic needs, including food, clothing, shelter, medical treatment, and supervision. Such failure constitutes child neglect.

Child abuse laws make it a crime for adults to abuse children in their care. Such adults include parents, legal guardians, other adults in the home, and baby-sitters. Supervising adults may not go beyond reasonable physical punishment. For example, adults who beat children so severely that the children require medical treatment have violated these laws. Child abuse laws cover not only physical abuse and sexual abuse, but also emotional abuse, such as subjecting a child to extreme public humiliation.

A person may be guilty of child abuse that he or she did not personally commit if that person had legal responsibility for the child and failed to protect the child from the abuser.

The law compels a wide range of people who have contact with children to report suspected child abuse or neglect. Such people include doctors, nurses, teachers, childcare workers, and social workers. A person who is required to report suspected neglect or abuse may face civil or criminal penalties for failure to do so.

States often encourage the reporting of suspected abuse through special hot lines. The laws of most states encourage persons to make reports of abuse by granting them immunity from defamation suits by the accused parents if they make the report in good faith–meaning the person who made the report genuinely suspected abuse, even if it later turns out that abuse did not occur.

Some states keep central lists of suspected child abuse cases. This helps identify abusers, such as parents who take their children to different hospitals in order to conceal evidence that they have repeatedly abused their children.

If the state takes a child away from a parent who has abused or neglected the child, the state usually seeks to reunite the family after correction of the problems that led to removal. This, however, is not always possible. If, for example, the parent makes little effort to improve or does not satisfactorily complete parenting skills programs offered by the state, then the state may ask a court to end all parental rights. If this happens, the legal bonds between parents and child are completely and permanently cut. The child then may be adopted by another family.