Child abuse is any act that results in actual or potential harm to a someone under the age of 18. This generally includes neglect, physical, sexual, or psychological mistreatment by parents, caregivers or other adults.
It is widespread and can occur in any cultural, ethnic, or income group, awareness of child abuse is necessary. In houses where substances are used obsessively or someone has anger issues, there is a higher chance of a child suffering at the hands of an adult.
Historically, parents were given the authority to discipline their children, making child abuse a difficult topic for the legal system to tackle. In many cultures, a father has the power of life and death over his offspring, according to William Blackstone in his book, “Commentaries on the Laws of England.” This is based on the principle that since the father gave them life, he is free to take life from them.
According to Blackstone, the foundation of the American legal system was based on British and is more moderate. The law stated that parents only have three obligations to their offspring maintain shelter and food, protect them, and make sure they were educated. Furthermore, parents may use only the force necessary to keep a child in order and may lawfully correct them in a reasonable manner.
Parental rights were very important by the time the American legal system began to take shape in the late 1700s. Parents who were adequately providing for their kids were rarely prosecuted for child abuse, no matter how harsh their discipline tactics were.
The first laws that protected kids enabled authorities to remove them from their homes and place them in apprenticeships.
The modern legal protection against child abuse began in the 1960s. Politicians took notice when an overwhelming number of stories about abused youngsters burst forth into the public conscience.
Child Protective Service agencies were set up in every state. Additionally, the federal government mandated that any doctors, teachers and other professional submit their findings to authorities. The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act says the minimum definition is:
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 which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.
In the 1970s, awareness of sexual abuse against children became a topic of much discussion, which made the legal system become more aggressive in policing. Sexual assault can be hard to detect but it is relatively easy to define.
Usually a sexual assault occurs when someone touches any part of another person’s body in a sexual way, even through clothes, without that person’s consent.
Although the government supports child protection endeavors, the federal legal system has refused to become involved with family problems like child abuse. The line between acceptable discipline and abuse has largely been drawn by state officials. State legislatures struggle to precisely define abuse.
The definition of child abuse changes with social norms, and in part, is due to the amount of discretion held by the state officials. Most authorities adhere to the federal government’s definition that child abuse as anything that causes serious physical injuries.
Helping the public understand what is considered child abuse is the first step toward awareness. Moreover, teaching them that while the federal government has established a minimum standard, the state they live in has specific laws about child abuse.
Written by Tanisha Jones
Edited by Cathy Milne
Psychology Today: Child Abuse
Marriage: History of Child Abuse Laws
Clarendon Press at Oxford: ‘Commentaries on the Laws of England;’ William Blackstone; Original Publication Date 1765
Featured and Top Image Courtesy of Veronica Costa’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License