Child Abuse and Neglect: Definitions and CAPTA Overview

The topic of child abuse and neglect is one that is close to my heart for several reasons. As an former social worker (a person working in a social – services setting) who had first-hand knowledge of the child protection system in all it’s glory and shame, I have seen the definitions of abuse and neglect applied with genuine care and concern and also with ill intent (a topic for another time). To begin a discussion of any topic, one must first know where they came from and what they mean.

The Child Abuse Prevention & Treatment Act (CAPTA)

In 1974, CAPTA and a later version in 2010 established the definitions of abuse and neglect as well as established the Office of Child Abuse and Neglect. The act also served as a means to define states’ roles and helps establish funding for states to address abuse and neglect. Several additions have been made to CAPTA including human trafficking, adoption, and abandoned infant guidelines. More information on CAPTA can be found at:

Child Abuse

One might assume that child abuse has only one definition when in reality, the definitions differ slightly depending on what level of government (state or federal) that you consult and what state that you gather your definition from. First, there is the CAPTA (federal) definition which reads:

“The employment, use, persuasion, inducement, enticement, or coercion of any child to engage in, or assist any other person to engage in, any sexually explicit conduct or simulation of such conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct; or the rape, and in cases of caretaker or inter-familial relationships, statutory rape, molestation, prostitution, or other form of sexual exploitation of children, or incest with children.” The original act can be read by clicking the following link:

There was an addendum to the definition as awareness was brought to the issue of sex trafficking. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 added to the definition of abuse and neglect by saying that “A child shall be considered a victim of “child abuse and neglect” and of “sexual abuse” if the child is identified, by a State or local agency employee of the State or locality involved, as being a victim of sex trafficking (as defined in § 103(10) of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (22 U.S.C. 7102)) or a victim of severe forms of trafficking in persons described in § 103(9)(A).” The 22 United States Code (USC) 7102 can be viewed by following the link:

State Definitions

In addition to CAPTA and the amendments made to CAPTA, states have some room to add to the minimum definition set forth in CAPTA (42 U.S.C.A. § 5106g). The minimum definition is: “Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation”; or “An act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.” Additional elements of the definition include the age (usually up to 18 years old) and that the abuse/neglect is specifically done by parents and/or caregivers.

Thus, states have the right to create their own abuse and neglect definitions as long as the minimum requirements are included and in accordance with state statutes. Unfortunately, what this means to a researcher wanting to define abuse or neglect is that the task becomes slightly more difficult.

As an illustration of differences, here are snapshots from Kentucky and Connecticut, both from a document published by (

In alignment with my educational nature, I would encourage you to engage in some critical thinking regarding Kentucky versus Connecticut definitions (or any state comparisons). Look at differences and think on how those definitions might be interpreted by people on the front lines of the child protection system, school teachers, doctors, or just fellow citizens. 

CAPTA legislation was not the very first child abuse legislation in the world, but it was the first in the U.S. to begin building the definitions of today.

Sources with additional information:

CAPTA legislation history:

General laws, statutes, and more:

Laws broken down by state:

Abandoned Infant Assistance:


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