In the United States there are federal provisions that require all states to have laws protecting children from child abuse. In every State, health care professionals, teachers, day care workers and law enforcers are legally obliged to report suspected cases of child abuse. In some States, these obligations extend to attorneys, clergy and camp counselors. There are also a substantial number of States that require everyone to report a case of suspected child abuse.
The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) (amended by the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act 2003) provides a broad minimum definition of child abuse. In addition it defines abuse relating to a failure to seek medical treatment and sexual abuse. However, the Act requires each individual state to define physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect to establish its own civil and criminal laws.
Although the specific provisions will depend on the state, there are three major legal elements to consider: the criminal implications of abusing a child, the requirements to report maltreatment (which are provided by civil law) and the powers conferred on the juvenile court to take custody of the child if the home environment is unsafe.
The PROTECT Act of 2003 (Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children Today) has wide-ranging powers relating to the abatement of, and punishment for, criminal activity that exploits children. For example, it removed the statute of limitations for cases involving child abuse and/or abduction, as well as removing the requirement for a waiting period after a person between the ages of 18 and 21 is reported missing (Suzanne’s law). Further this Act implemented a number of new provisions concerned with indecent images of children, including drawings, sculptures, and computer-generated images.
An example of how the provisions may vary from state to state can be demonstrated by the state-specific laws concerning the legal consequences for a parent who commits an act of domestic violence in front of a child. In some states this is a separate criminal offence, whereas in others it is seen as an ‘aggravating feature’ of the original act of violence. There are also provisions, in some jurisdictions, for the offender to pay for counseling for the child and other states require the offender to undertake counseling themselves.
Each state also has its own provisions that provide the grounds for terminating a person’s parental rights, which has obvious relevance in adoption cases. It is very important if you are concerned about the welfare of a child you should contact your local agency. They can be called different names depending on the state: Department of Children & Family Services, Department of Social Services or the Child Protective Services (CPS.) If you need legal advice, contact an attorney.