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Overview of Child Abuse

When children are abused or witness violence in their homes, schools or communities, it can be a horrifying and confusing experience. They struggle to explain it - often times they think it's their fault. It can leave children feeling terrified - worrying, withdrawing, wondering why it happened or whether it will happen again. And too often, they are powerless to do anything about it.

But you can do something. Find out how to recognize common signs of abuse, as well as the impact that violence and abuse have on children. You can help bring the light of hope back into a child's life.

What is Child Abuse?

Each state has its own definitions of child abuse and neglect, but there are minimum standards set by the Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act:

  • Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or
  • An act or failure to act that presents an imminent risk of serious harm.
  • Emotional abuse, neglect, physical abuse and sexual abuse are all different forms of child abuse and each can be equally traumatic.

Emotional Abuse is a pattern of behavior that impairs a child's emotional development or sense of self-worth, and it is almost always present when other forms of abuse are identified. This 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.

Neglect is failure to provide for a child's basic needs. Neglect may be:

  • Physical (e.g., failure to provide necessary food or shelter, or lack of appropriate supervision)
  • Medical (e.g., failure to provide necessary medical or mental health treatment) 1
  • Educational (e.g., failure to educate a child or attend to special education needs)
  • Emotional (e.g., inattention to a child's emotional needs, failure to provide psychological care, or permitting the child to use alcohol or other drugs)

Physical Abuse is physical injury (ranging from minor bruises to severe fractures or death) as a result of punching, beating, kicking, biting, shaking, throwing, stabbing, choking, hitting (with a hand, stick, strap, or other object), burning, or otherwise harming a child. Such injury is considered abuse regardless of whether the caretaker intended to hurt the child.

Sexual Abuse is 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 the 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. An abuser may be a stranger to a child, but statistics show that abusers are much more likely to be a familiar presence in a child's life, such as a family member, family friend, neighbor, babysitter, religious or youth group leader, teacher, or anyone with a power advantage over the child.


This information is reprinted courtesy of the Child Welfare Information Gateway, www.childwelfare.gov.

1. Withholding of medically indicated treatment is defined by CAPTA as "the failure to respond to the infant's life threatening conditions by providing treatment (including appropriate nutrition, hydration, and medication) that in the treating physician's or physicians' reasonable medical judgment, will be most likely to be effective in ameliorating or correcting all such conditions." CAPTA does note a few exceptions, including infants who are "chronically and irreversibly comatose"; situations when providing treatment would not save the infant's life but merely prolong dying; or when "the provision of such treatment would be virtually futile in terms of the survival of the infant and the treatment itself under such circumstances would be inhumane."

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