Physical abuse is a nonaccidental physical injury to a child caused by a parent, caregiver, or other person responsible for a child and can include punching, beating, kicking, biting, shaking, throwing, stabbing, choking, hitting (with a hand, stick, strap, or other object), burning, or otherwise causing physical harm.2 Physical discipline, such as spanking or paddling, is not considered abuse as long as it is reasonable and causes no bodily injury to the child. Injuries from physical abuse could range from minor bruises to severe fractures or death.


Neglect is the failure of a parent or other caregiver to provide for a child’s basic needs. Neglect generally includes the following categories:

 ƒ Physical (e.g., failure to provide necessary food or shelter, lack of appropriate supervision) ƒ Medical (e.g., failure to provide necessary medical or mental health treatment, withholding medically indicated treatment from children with life-threatening conditions)3  ƒ Educational (e.g., failure to educate a child or attend to special education needs) ƒ Emotional (e.g., inattention to a child’s emotional needs, failure to provide psychological care, permitting a child to use alcohol or other drugs)

Sometimes cultural values, the standards of care in the community, and poverty may contribute to what is perceived as maltreatment, indicating the family may need information or assistance. It is important to note that living in poverty is not considered child abuse or neglect. However, a family’s failure to use available information and resources to care for their child may put the child’s health or safety at risk, and child welfare intervention could be required. In addition, many States provide an exception to the definition of neglect for parents who choose not to seek medical care for their children due to religious beliefs.


Sexual abuse includes activities by a parent or other caregiver such as fondling a child’s genitals, penetration, incest, rape, sodomy, indecent exposure, and exploitation through prostitution or the production of pornographic materials. Sexual abuse is defined by CAPTA as “the employment, use, persuasion, inducement, enticement, or coercion of any child to engage in, or assist any other person to engage in, any sexually explicit conduct or simulation of such conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct; or the rape, and in cases of caretaker or interfamilial relationships, statutory rape, molestation, prostitution, or other form of sexual exploitation of children, or incest with children”(42 U.S.C. § 5106g(a)(4)).


Emotional abuse (or psychological abuse) is a pattern of behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development or sense of self-worth. 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 evidence of harm or mental injury to the child (Prevent Child Abuse America, 2016).


Abandonment is considered in many States as a form of neglect. In general, a child is considered to be abandoned when the parent’s identity or whereabouts are unknown, the child has been left alone in circumstances where the child suffers serious harm, the child has been deserted with no regard for his or her health or safety, or the parent has failed to maintain contact with the child or provide reasonable support for a specified period of time. Some States have enacted laws—often called safe haven laws—that provide safe places for parents to relinquish newborn infants. Information Gateway produced a publication as part of its State Statutes series that summarizes such laws. Infant Safe Haven Laws is available at laws-policies/statutes/safehaven/.


Recognizing Signs of Abuse and Neglect and When to Report It is important to recognize high-risk situations and the signs and symptoms of maltreatment. If you suspect a child is being harmed, reporting your suspicions may protect him or her and help the family receive assistance. Any concerned person can report suspicions of child abuse or neglect. Reporting your concerns is not making an accusation; rather, it is a request for an investigation and assessment to determine if help is needed.  Some people (typically certain types of professionals, such as teachers or physicians) are required by State laws to report child maltreatment under specific circumstances. Some States require all adults to report suspicions of child abuse or neglect. Individuals required to report maltreatment are called mandatory reporters. Information Gateway’s Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse and Neglect discusses the laws that designate groups of professionals or individuals as mandatory reporters. It is available at topics/systemwide/laws-policies/statutes/ manda/?hasBeenRedirected=1.

For information about where and how to file a report, contact your local child protective services agency or police department. Childhelp’s National Child Abuse Hotline (800.4.A.CHILD) and its website ( offer crisis intervention, information, resources, and referrals to support services and provide assistance in more than 170 languages. 

For information on what happens when suspected abuse or neglect is reported, read Information Gateway’s How the Child Welfare System Works at cpswork/.


Human trafficking is considered a form of modern slavery and includes both sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Sex trafficking is recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining someone for a commercial sex act, such as prostitution, pornography, or stripping. Labor trafficking is forced labor, including drug dealing, begging, or working long hours for little pay (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2018). Although human trafficking includes victims of any sex, age, race/ ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, children involved in child welfare, including children who are in out-of-home care, are especially vulnerable (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2018). 

For more information, see Information Gateway’s webpage on human trafficking at https://www. and the State statutes on the definitions of human trafficking at laws-policies/statutes/definitions-trafficking/.

NATIONAL CHILD ABUSE HOTLINE (1-800) 4 -A -CHILD (1-800)422 -4533

The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline is dedicated to the prevention of child abuse. Serving the U.S. and Canada, the hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with professional crisis counselors who—through interpreters—provide assistance in over 170 languages. The hotline offers crisis intervention, information, and referrals to thousands of emergency, social service, and support resources. All calls are confidential.

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