Criminal child abuse takes many forms and can include any kind of mistreatment inflicted upon a child. It typically includes physical, emotional, sexual, medical abuse or neglect. Each type of abuse can result in both criminal prosecution and civil penalties.
Of course, all states have laws against assault, battery and homicide that would apply to physical attacks against children. However, many states also have laws that specifically define these crimes when committed against children as child abuse. These laws differ in their particular language from state to state, but they would all prohibit and criminalize any kind of cruelty towards children, including physical battery, mental abuse and neglect.
Child abuse and neglect is also dealt with through a system of civil laws and government agencies that work to to remove abused children from the homes in which they suffer abuse or otherwise protect the child and help provide treatment for families. This article deals mostly with criminal law regarding child abuse.
What Is Physical Abuse?
Child abuse laws make physical attacks against children or actions that result in harm to a child criminal. Both minor injuries, such as bruises, and serious injuries, such as burns or broken bones, are all abusive if the adult intends to inflict them on a child. Even if the adult does not intend to cause the injury, or causes no injury at all, intentionally assaulting a child is criminal.
Some states categorize child abuse as first degree or second degree. For example, in the state of Maryland, the felony of first degree child abuse requires proof of three elements as follows:
- The crime must be committed by a person who is a family member by blood or marriage, a household member, or a person with permanent or temporary custody, care or responsibility for a child;.
- The person must cause abuse to a child by inflicting cruel or inhuman treatment, or a malicious act which causes physical injury and demonstrates a threat or harm to the child’s health or welfare.
- The abuse must result in severe physical injury or death; “severe physical injury” means starvation, brain injury or bleeding within the skull (e.g., a concussion) or any other physical injury that puts the minor at a substantial risk of death, causes permanent or serious disfigurement, impairment of bodily functions, or loss of function in any body part.
In Maryland, conviction of first degree felony child abuse that results in the death of a child is punishable by up to 40 years in state prison.
Second degree felony child abuse in Maryland involves the same definition of perpetrators who:
- Inflict cruel or inhuman treatment, or engage in a malicious act;
- That causes physical injury and demonstrates a threat or harm to a child’s health or welfare.
In Maryland, conviction of second degree felony child abuse is punishable by up to 15 years in state prison.
In Florida, child abuse is a so-called “third degree” felony that is punishable by up to five years in a state prison. There are three ways to commit child abuse in Florida as follows:
- Intentionally inflicting physical or mental injury upon a child,
- Committing an intentional act that could reasonably be expected to result in physical or mental injury to a child; or
- Actively encouraging another person to commit an act that results or could be expected to result in physical or mental injury to a child.
Note that under the third definition, no physical contact with a child is necessary for conviction; simply encouraging another person to commit any act that results or could be expected to result in physical or mental injury to a child is sufficient for a charge of child abuse.
The punishment for conviction of child abuse in Florida ranges from a year in jail to life in prison and imposition of the death penalty is even possible in the worst cases.
So, it is clear that the crime of child abuse varies greatly from state to state. However, in most states, the following conduct would qualify as child abuse:
- Hitting with a belt, paddle or object other than a hand; spanking is generally not against the law;
- Pinching hard enough to leave a mark that does not go away within seconds;
- Burning, for example with cigarettes, a lighter, an iron or the stove top burner;
- Biting hard enough to leave a bruise or break the skin;
- Pushing into walls or knocking to the floor, choking, kicking or punching.
What Is Mental or Emotional Abuse?
Many states encompass verbal threats and emotional abuse in their definitions of child abuse. In these situations, the child does not need to suffer any actual physical harm for an act to be abusive. A caregiver who, for example, repeatedly humiliates or terrorizes a child has committed child abuse. Parents who subject their children to the sight of physical abuse may also commit child abuse.
A child is being emotionally abused when a parent, another person in the household or a caretaker engages in the following:
- Calling the child names that are demeaning or degrading;
- Telling the child that they are worthless, stupid or “a mistake;”
- Telling the child that they are never good enough or can’t do anything right;
- Telling the child they wish the child had never been born;
- Threatening the child with physical abuse or threatening to physically abuse others in the household.
What Is Child Sexual Abuse?
Children are below the age of consent so when an adult engages in any kind of sexual activity with a minor, it can be charged as child abuse. Using physical force in committing sexual abuse is not necessary for the act to qualify as abuse; sexual abuse can be the result of obtaining compliance with sexual conduct by lying, coercion, bribery or a simple demand. A child is a person under the age of 18.
A child is being sexually abused when a person:
- Improperly touches a child’s private parts;
- Shows a child improper nude pictures;
- Takes pictures of the child when the child is undressed;
- Entices the child with the intent of sexually abusing the child;
- Engages in explicit sexual conduct with a child.
What Are Child Maltreatment and Child Neglect?
If a child suffers injury due to an accident, such as a fall off a bike, it is not considered abusive. However, accidents are not the same as carelessness or negligence, and such actions are covered under state abuse laws. For example, leaving children under a certain age that is usually specified in law at home to care for themselves without adult supervision can qualify as abuse or neglect.
Failing to provide regular medical care when it is needed, adequate shelter, or adequate nutrition can also count as abuse. A home that is extremely neglected, unclean, or infested with vermin can qualify as abuse by neglect.
The law requires parents to provide their children with a safe, stable home, adequate nutrition, appropriate clothing, education, medical care and supervision. Failure to fulfill these obligations can set a person up for criminal charge of child neglect.
What Are the Legal Consequences of Child Abuse?
There are criminal consequences if a person is convicted of the crime of child abuse. The punishment depends on the state in which the crime was committed. As noted above, in Maryland, the crime of child abuse can be punished by either 15 or 40 years in a state prison depending on whether it is first or second degree abuse. In Florida, the punishment varies from 1 year in jail to life in prison, depending on the facts of the case. If a person murders a child, in some states, the perpetrator might be given the death penalty.
The age of a child in a child abuse case can be a factor that a court considers in determining the punishment in a child abuse case. Also the severity of the child abuse would be a factor in the punishment imposed. Criminal consequences for child abuse include:
- A term of imprisonment;
- Imposition of fines of from several hundred to several thousand dollars;
- Probation for terms of from a few months to a year;
- Loss of custody or visitation with a person’s children;
- Anger management or parenting classes
- If the crime involved sexual abuse, the perpetrator could be required to register as a sex offender, possibly for life.
Child abuse is a serious crime and anyone charged with it should consult an experienced criminal defense attorney.
Can I Be Held Civilly Liable for Child Abuse?
Civil consequences usually involve removal of the child from the home in which abuse has taken place by an agency of a local government that offers child protective services. A court can limit parental rights short of removing a child from the home, although a court could remove a child and place them in protective custody with a state agency or foster family. Or a court can require a parent to visit a child only with the supervision of a court-appointed monitor. These measures are all considered civil remedies for child abuse.
It is also possible that a child victim could bring a civil suit for damages for assault and battery or intentional infliction of emotional distress against a perpetrator.
Do I Need a Criminal Lawyer Who Handles Child Abuse Cases?
If you have been charged with criminal child abuse, you could face serious punishment and should most definitely consult an experienced criminal defense lawyer. A lawyer can review the facts of your case with you, inform you of your options and of the possible punishment. You will get the best outcome possible if you have a knowledgeable lawyer representing you in pre-trial negotiations and at trial.