The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) is the main piece of federal legislation addressing child abuse. It puts forth a framework for defining types of child abuse and enables federal assistance for preventing, identifying, and treating child abuse nationwide. CAPTA was enacted in 1974 and has been amended and rewritten several times.

Federal definitions of child abuse

State governments have the primary responsibility for child welfare. This means the definitions of child abuse for reporting and prosecuting purposes vary from state to state. CAPTA helps offset this issue with minimum standards for defining child abuse. States must incorporate these standards into in their definitions to receive federal funding.

Under CAPTA, child abuse is "any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker that results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation," and "an act or failure to act that presents an imminent risk of serious harm." The act identifies a child as a person under the age of 18 and restricts the perpetrator to a parent or guardian. The act also provides a specific definition of sexual abuse and of cases that involve withholding prescribed medical treatment.

Federal funding for child abuse

CAPTA funds states' efforts to improve their child abuse identification and prevention programs. This includes grants to states, public agencies, and nonprofit organizations that will support innovative prevention and treatment programs, research, and training. In addition, CAPTA established the federal Office of Child Abuse and Neglect to identify research opportunities, administer state grants, and provide data collection and technical assistance to states and communities.

CAPTA does not impose new laws. It enforces and supports the child abuse laws of each state.

Recent amendments to CAPTA

The Child Abuse Prevention and Enforcement Act of 2000 gives the federal government the ability to assist in the investigation and prosecution of child abuse cases. It authorizes federal funding to improve the criminal justice system's ability to provide timely, accurate, and complete criminal history records to child welfare agencies. In addition, it allows law enforcement agencies to use federal funds to enforce child abuse laws, promote prevention programs, and create partnerships with the media to share information that may lead to the arrest of child abuse offenders.

Additional resources:

Child Welfare League of America: Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act

Child Welfare Information Gateway: About CAPTA-A Legislative History

Related Legal Guides:

The Basics of Child Abuse

Child Abuse Types

Child Abuse Consequences

Psychological Child Abuse