Types of Maltreatment

There are four commonly recognized forms of child maltreatment: neglect (including medical neglect), physical abusesexual abuse, and psychological maltreatment. These may be found separately or in any combination.  For fiscal year 2010, the breakdown of substantiated maltreatment for child victims is as follows.

  • 78.3 percent neglect
  • 17.6 percent physical abuse
  • 9.2 percent sexual abuse
  • 8.1 percent psychological maltreatment
  • 2.4 percent medical neglect
  • 10.3 percent other, such as abandonment or threats of harm to the child

Note that the sum of these percentages is more than 100 percent because children may have experienced more than one type of maltreatment.

There is no single, universally applied definition of child abuse and neglect.  While legal definitions describing the different forms of child maltreatment, as well as guidelines for reporting suspected maltreatment and criminal prosecutions, are found mainly in state statutes, the guidelines for accepting reports, conducting an investigation, and providing interventions may vary not only from state to state, but county to county.

Despite these differences, there are some commonalities.  The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) provides minimum federal standards for states to use when defining physical child abuse, child neglect, and sexual abuse if states choose to receive federal funds under the CAPTA state grant program.  Under CAPTA, child abuse and neglect means:

  • 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
  • An act or failure to act that presents an imminent risk of serious harm

This definition refers specifically to parents and other caregivers.  Under this definition, a child generally means someone under the age of 18 or someone who is not an emancipated minor.  In sexual abuse cases, a child is someone who is under 18 or the age specified by the state’s child protection law where he or she lives, whichever is younger.

While CAPTA provides definitions for sexual abuse and special cases related to withholding medical treatment, it does not provide specific definitions for physical abuse, neglect, or psychological maltreatment.  Each state provides the specific definitions for those and may expand upon the CAPTA definitions for sexual abuse and withholding of medical treatment.