Written by Avvo Staff

The Basics of Child Abuse

The term "child abuse" refers to any mistreatment of a child that results in harm or injury. There are four types of child abuse: physical, emotional, sexual, and the most common form of child abuse, neglect.

Recognizing child abuse

There are many signs that may indicate abuse. While no one sign is an absolute indicator of abuse, there are things that you can look out for. These may be indications that the child is suffering some form of abuse:

  • The child's behavior changes dramatically
  • The child suddenly becomes withdrawn or has trouble concentrating
  • The child's schoolwork begins to suffer
  • The child has injuries that go untreated or won't heal

If parents or other adult caretakers seem unconcerned with the child's welfare, blame the child for the child's problems, make it known they feel the child is worthless, or are especially strict or aggressive with the child, these may also be signs that the child is suffering abuse.

Child abuse and the law

The legal definition of child abuse varies somewhat from state to state, but the federal government has established the foundation on which state laws are built.

According to federal law, the most basic definition of child abuse is any act (or failure to act) on the part of the parent or adult caregiver that causes the death, physical or emotional harm, or sexual abuse or exploitation of a child, or puts the child at immediate risk of serious harm.

Reporting suspected child abuse

The laws on reporting suspected child abuse vary somewhat depending on the state. While some states require everyone to report it, other states require only members of certain professions to report suspected child abuse. These can be teachers, doctors, social workers, or childcare providers. Most states will protect you from any liability if you report suspected child abuse.

Whether or not you are required by law to report child abuse, if you suspect a case of child abuse, there are some simple steps you can take.

  • Contact the police or your local office of Child Protective Services.
  • Contact the ChildHelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453).

Additional resources:

Child Welfare Information Gateway: Child Abuse Reporting Numbers (

Childhelp: National Child Abuse Hotline (

Related Legal Guides:

Child Abuse Types (

Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (

Child Abuse Consequences (

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