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Child Physical Abuse:


What is Child Physical Abuse?


Child physical abuse is any conduct that causes bodily injury to a child that is not, in some way, appropriate for the welfare or discipline of the child.  The American Medical Association defines an abusive injury as a “non-accidental” injury such as hitting, slapping, beating, biting, burning, shaking, strangling a child, or any other act that may cause injury or pain to the child. The definition also states that any mark left on a child that is sufficient to last for a period of at least 24 hours or more, is considered an “abusive” injury.


Abusers will typically use “discipline” as a “common defense” or excuse for doing things to a child that a reasonable person would consider criminally abusive. However, the line from discipline and physical abuse is crossed when the act is obviously excessive, inappropriate for the child’s age and development, or when the intent is obviously to cause pain for the child instead of to discipline or promote the general welfare of the child.  In the criminal investigations community, “positional discipline” is commonly seen accompanying cases of severe physical abuse. Positional discipline is when a parent or caregiver forces a child to kneel on the floor facing a wall, or doing “wall-sits”, or having to hold heavy objects out to their sides to cause stress and muscle fatigue or pain from maintaining that position. These are not acceptable forms of punishment for children, and almost always accompany more severe, criminal physical abuse as well.


An injury to a child may become “aggravated” in the context of the law due to the nature of the injury and its severity.  For example, if the injury constitutes “serious bodily injury” where the child could die without immediate medical attention or may suffer some life altering or significantly debilitating physical consequences of that injury, then the injury may be of a much higher criminal penalty.  Injury to a child may also include acts by “omission” where the offender should have acted to prevent the child from suffering an injury or the worsening of an injury or other medical condition, but the offender failed to act and provide that child with the necessary care.


Any act that impedes the airway, breathing or swallowing ability of the child (effectively strangulation or criminal asphyxiation) is also a severely abusive act.  This oftentimes includes acts where a parent or caregiver “dunks” a child in the bath or under water, and the child suffers a near drowning incident.  These incidents are at a high risk of being potentially fatal to a child, even if they survive the initial incident.


The injuries themselves that are present on or inside the child, can be highly indicative of whether the injury was sustained accidentally or non-accidentally. Specialized medical professionals are often able to provide information allowing investigators to understand the “mechanism” of an injury, which in turn will help investigators understand whether the history for that injury provided by a parent or caregiver is possible or plausible.


Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (Factitious Disorder Imposed on Another)


This is what the DSM-V classifies as “factitious disorder” and is commonly associated with pediatric medical abuse (formerly known as “Munchausen Syndrome” or “Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy”) is when a parent or caregiver creates situations where a child is subjected to unnecessary medical treatments and surgeries.  This can be due to a psychological disorder in the parent or caregiver, or it could be an intentional act perpetrated on the child by a parent or caregiver for other reasons.


There are not many in the professional communities (CPS, Law Enforcement and Medical Health Care Providers) that know how to properly handle these types of cases and for that reason many of these cases are not identified and handled as they should. Statistically speaking, this type of pediatric medical abuse is also the most lethal form of child abuse.  It is also the case that most of the states in the US today do not have criminal statutes that properly cover this type of criminal activity with children, and for that reason other statutes are being used (sometimes without positive effect) to bridge the gap in the legislation.


Criminal Child Neglect, Endangerment and Abandonment


This would include any act committed by a parent or caregiver, or any failure to act protectively by an offending parent or caregiver, that places a child in substantial risk of harm, risk of bodily injury, risk of significant psychological impairment, or potential death.

This could include but is not limited to:

  1. Leaving loaded firearms unattended and in a place where a child could easily access the loaded firearm.

  2. Leaving toxic chemicals in a place where a child could easily access the chemicals.

  3. Leaving alcohol, dangerous medications, or drugs (legal and illegal) unattended and in a place where a child could easily access the substance.

  4. Leaving a child in a hot car or home, such that the child is at a significant risk of overheating or dehydration.

  5. Leaving a child in hazardous conditions, or exposure to extremely unsanitary conditions.

  6. Inattention to special medical needs of the child.

  7. Allowing the child access to any persons or animals who represent a danger to the child in the given circumstances.

  8. Leaving or abandoning a child unsupervised in any place, when and where the child is incapable of providing for their own needs and safety.

  9. Engaging in dangerous behaviors in a reckless or negligent manner that is likely to cause injury or impairment to a child.

  10. Failure to feed or provide sufficient nutrition to a child.

  11. Failure to provide appropriate medical and mental health care to a child in need.

  12. Failure to protect a child from a physical or sexual abuse situation.

  13. Failure to report child physical or sexual abuse to CPS and Law Enforcement.


If your child or a child you know is currently suffering from abuse or neglect, contact the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (800-422-4453) today.


It is typically mandatory under the law in any state, that these things be immediately reported to law enforcement once a disclosure of sexual abuse is made by any person.  Failure to do so and act protectively for a child may be a crime depending on the circumstances.  Even if you or someone else was the victim of sexual abuse as a child, and the victim is an adult today, you should still report it to the authorities.

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