Child abuse is one of the most destructive crimes in our society, with the damage to the child persisting through their entire lifetime. Because the victims in these types of crimes are often unable or afraid to report the offender, there are provisions in many state child abuse laws requiring third parties to come forward with knowledge of an abusive act. This legal requirement to report can get complicated when privileged relationships are involved, such as that between a patient and their doctor or a client and their attorney. Also, the definition of abuse is often vague, making it difficult to know what activities should be reported.
Once an incident of child abuse is reported, the state child protection office may be able to act immediately and remove the child from the home. This is different than most cases where Constitutional protection requires a trial before an action may be taken. Immediate action is permitted in child abuse cases in order to protect the child from a possibly abusive home situation. Unfortunately, this does occasionally lead to families being broken up over claims that were later found to be false or unsubstantiated. To combat this, many states now have laws penalizing those who file false child abuse claims.
In most cases, however, an investigation is performed before the agency decides to remove the child from an abusive home. Evidence of abuse or gross neglect must generally be found before any action is taken. Even if no abuse is found, a neglectful situation that is dirty, unsafe, or unhealthy may be sufficient to require the child protection agency to step in on the child's behalf. Removal from the home and placement into foster care is only done in cases of severe or persistent abuse. Most of the time, the family is referred to counseling or to a family court to resolve the issues. In serious abuse cases, the abuser may be charged with a criminal offense and sent to criminal court.
In recent years, child abuse laws have been expanded to provide even more protection for children. Some of the changes include covering pre-natal abuse to fetuses while still in the mother's womb and adding a provision covering the enticement of children into sexually exploitive activities. Other changes have expanded the list of health professionals who are required to report possible abuse, often including such professions as dentists, Christian Scientists, nurses, and chiropractors.