A married couple committing child maltreatment.

I spent 10 years working as an assistant county attorney in Southern Minnesota in the 90's. One of my duties was to sit on the child protection team. It consisted of child protection workers, lay community members, a doctor from the Mayo Clinic and myself. We would review cases each month to discuss whether maltreatment had occurred in reported cases to child protection in the previous month. In Minnesota, it is the public policy of the state to protect children whose health or welfare may be jeopardized through physical abuse, neglect, or sexual abuse. That policy is supported by a set of statutes that lists what is child maltreatment, who are mandatory reporters, and what procedures have to be followed when there have been allegations of maltreatment.

Child Neglect

Child maltreatment can take many forms. Most commonly, maltreatment is a result of a child being neglected. When a child’s caregiver fails to provide the child with necessary food or clothing, such that the child’s health is in danger, he or she may be found guilty of child maltreatment. Neglect is a broad area and can include situations in which a caregiver exposes a child to conditions which pose a significant health or safety hazard to the child in the home. This may include, for example, guns that are not safely stored or dangerous drugs or controlled substances accessible to children. Other situations of neglect include the failure to provide necessary medical care if there is serious risk to a child or even persistent conditions of personal hygiene so extreme that a child is unable to participate in a community or school setting. Failing to ensure that a child is enrolled in school or attending school may also constitute child neglect. Other categories of neglect include:

  • Failure to protect a child from conditions or actions that seriously endanger the child’s physical or mental health, for example, failure to protect a child from a person who poses a serious threat to his or her safety, which could include a sibling or a parent.
  • Child abandonment which can occur if a parent has had no contact with the child on a regular basis and has not demonstrated consistent interest in the child’s well-being for six months (a year if the child is over the age of 6), or if, with a child under two years of age, the parent or caretaker deserts the child under circumstances that show intent not to return to care for the child.
  • Failure to provide necessary child care arrangements, which could include selecting an unreliable person to provide child care or leaving a child at home alone when he or she is not able to provide for his or her own basic needs and safety, based on such factors as the child’s age, mental ability and maturity level and whether the parent can easily be reached by the child.
  • Failure to provide necessary supervision, for example, failing to supervise a child in a bathtub or near a swimming pool, lake, pond, heavy piece of machinery, or busy street.
  • Chronic and severe use of alcohol or a controlled substance by a parent or person responsible for care of a child that adversely affects the child’s basic needs and safety.

Child physical abuse

The physical abuse of a child by a caregiver may also give rise to claims of child maltreatment. Physical abuse refers to any physical injury, including bruises, scratches, cuts, swelling, burns, or internal injuries, inflicted by a parent or caregiver upon a child other than by accident. Physical abuse does not include reasonable and moderate forms of discipline that do not result in injury. Any of the following are generally not considered reasonable or moderate punishment and may rise to the level of physical abuse:

  • Throwing, kicking, burning, biting, or cutting a child.
  • Striking a child with a closed fist.
  • Shaking a child under age three.
  • interference with a child’s breathing.
  • Threatening a child with a weapon.
  • Striking a child under age 1 on the face or head.
  • Purposely giving a child poison, alcohol, or dangerous, harmful, or controlled substances in order to control or punish him or her.
  • Unreasonable physical confinement or restraint.

In some situations, threatened injury may even constitute child physical abuse. This may be the case, for instance, if a child is entrusted to the care of a person whose parental rights have been taken away or who has legally been found to be unfit. Holding a weapon to a child or driving intoxicated with a child passenger may also be considered child abuse.

Aside from acts that result in physical injury, the actions of a caregiver or parent that result in mental injury or emotional harm may also rise to the level of physical child abuse. Mental injury and emotional harm refer to a substantial and observable injury to a child’s psychological capacity or emotional stability. Certain situations of domestic violence may result in mental or emotional harm to a child, for example, if injuries to a parent or caretaker are potentially life threatening or permanent; when a child intervenes in the course of domestic violence to protect the parent; or when a child is in fear for his or her life or the life of a parent or caretaker.

Child sexual abuse

Child maltreatment can also result from a child being subjected to criminal sexual conduct by a person responsible for the child’s care or by a person who has a significant relationship to the child or is in a position of authority. There are varying degrees of criminal sexual conduct although the statutes primarily focus on acts of sexual penetration and sexual contact. The latter, if done with sexual or aggressive intent, can include touching the clothing covering the immediate area of a minor’s intimate parts, or the intentional removal or attempted removal of clothing covering the intimate parts. Minnesota statutes further specify masturbation or lewd exhibition of the genitals knowingly in the presence of a minor as criminal sexual conduct, as well as pornography or prostitution involving a minor. Further, a parent or guardian may be guilty of child sexual abuse in situations in which a he or she knowingly allows a child to live with or have unsupervised contact with a person who has committed a sexual offense against a child.

If you suspect that a child has been maltreated for any reason, you need to call the child protection hotline in your county of residence or your local police department and make a report. Remember, it is not for you to decide whether the maltreatment actually happened. That is a decision of your local law enforcement and social services agency. Do not hesitate to call, a child's life is at risk.