Child Abuse Law



What is Child Abuse Law?

Child abuse law provides the rules for holding individuals who harm children legally accountable for their actions. These laws are directed at parents, guardians, caretakers, and anyone else responsible for a child’s wellbeing. Child abuse is not limited to physical harm. Most child abuse statutes also include emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation, as well as acts or failures to act that result in an imminent risk of danger to the child. Allegations of child abuse can result in criminal charges and/or the initiation of a child neglect case in civil court. Statutes prohibiting child abuse have been enacted at the state and federal level.

Defending Against Criminal Charges

People are arrested on charges of child abuse every day in the United States. Many of these individuals did in fact cause harm to a child and deserve to be dealt with accordingly. However, others end up on the wrong side of the law by mistake. Teachers and other professionals have a legal responsibility to report incidents that tend to suggest any kind of abuse, and law enforcement officers do not hesitate to take action when there is a possibility of preventing harm to a child. This willingness to error on the side of protecting kids is laudable. Unfortunately, though, it results in a number of child abuse cases that are simply without merit.

Those who have been wrongly accused of child abuse will likely experience feelings of confusion, fear, and resentment. Even so, people in this position can take comfort in knowing that that the criminal justice system offers important protections for the accused. For instance, every case must follow the same procedural course. This removes much of the uncertainty people feel immediately after an arrest, as they can visit with an attorney and quickly learn what to expect in the weeks and months ahead.

Another aspect of the criminal justice system that will prove useful to child abuse defendants is known as discovery. Discovery is based on the premise that the government is not allowed to convict people based on secret evidence. Everything must be disclosed to the defendant. In a child abuse case, discovery may include witness statements and identifying information, transcripts or notes from interviews with the child, reports by Child Protective Services (CPS) caseworkers, and more. An attorney familiar with child abuse law can further explain how discovery works, and help develop a defense strategy for exposing the false nature of the accusations.

What to Expect in a Civil Neglect Case

Not all accusations of child abuse result in criminal charges being filed. In fact, the first thing to occur in many cases is for the child to be taken into protective custody. This begins a civil neglect case. These matters are handled differently in each state, but the basic idea is that the government believes the parent or guardian is unfit to care for the child or incapable of providing a safe environment. Depending on the nature of the case, the child may be returned to the home almost immediately and allowed to remain there for the duration of the proceedings. Other times the child will be placed in foster care until the judge is satisfied that the most pressing neglect issues have been addressed.

At the initial court appearance, the parent accused of neglect will be presented with a copy of the petition setting forth the allegations. It is crucial not to admit fault at this stage. Parents should seek advice from counsel before conceding that neglect occurred or waiving any other legal rights. Judges understand the reluctance of anyone to go forward in a neglect case without having discussed the matter with an attorney first. Parents are usually informed of their right to a court-appointed attorney in neglect proceedings, and given time to hire private counsel if they wish. Due to the workload and time constraints of appointed attorneys, hiring an attorney in private practice is highly recommended.

The Role of a Guardian ad Litem (GAL)

Child abuse cases will often involve three attorneys, each with a different responsibility. Obviously, the prosecutor’s job is to represent the interests of the state, and the defense attorney is there to advocate for the accused. The role of the third attorney is less clear to anyone unfamiliar with child abuse law. This lawyer is called the GAL. The GAL is involved in the case to argue in favor of the child’s best interests. This does not mean the GAL is the child’s attorney, per se. This person will advise the court on the most suitable course of action for the child’s wellbeing. This can, and often does, differ from what the child may think is best.

Hiring a Child Abuse Lawyer

Every accusation of child abuse is a serious matter with lasting consequences. If you are involved in a child abuse case, you need to speak with an attorney right away. A local attorney practicing in this area of the law can answer your questions and help you assert your right to care for your child.

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