Working definitions of sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect

The following working definitions are derived from the legal definitions in the state laws. The language has been simplified in order to increase knowledge and understanding of the Law.

Sexual Abuse:

Any behavior which results in touching of the sexual or other intimate parts of a child for the purpose of sexual gratification of the child and/or adult. It includes touching by the child and/or adult without or with clothing. Often, the sexual abuse occurs over time and may not be painful or cause physical injury to the child. The adult gets the child to participate by using rewards, threats, bribes and lying, and takes advantage of the child’s trust. This type of coercion by an adult, whom the child often loves, can result in long term emotional trauma that can last into adulthood.

Working Definition:

Sexual abuse occurs when a parent (or person legally responsible) commits or allows to be committed, a sexual act with a child:

  • Fondling (touching the child in a sexual way)
  • Rubbing one’s genitals on a child’s body
  • Getting the child to touch the adult in a sexual way
  • Inserting fingers, penis, or objects in the vagina or anus
  • Putting a penis in a child’s mouth, rectum, or vagina
  • Any oral sexual contact
  • Allowing, permitting, or encouraging a child to engage in prostitution
  • Taking photographs of a child in sexual poses or simulating sexual acts
  • Committing incestSexual abuse also occurs if the person legally responsible does something that allows the act to be committed (if he or she knows about it and doesn’t do anything to stop it).If any of the above acts are committed by a person who is not legally responsible for the care of the child, it is considered sexual assault. This is a criminal act. All cases of sexual assault should be referred to the police.

    Some inappropriate sexual behavior is considered to be neglect. This can include exhibitionism or allowing a child to watch pornography.

Physical Abuse:

Physical abuse occurs when a parent (or person legally responsible) commits a physical act (i.e. punching, beating, shaking, throwing, kicking, biting, burning) which causes serious physical injury to a child. Although the injury is not an accident, the parent or caretaker may not have intended to hurt the child. The injury often results from out of control rage and anger, which can lead to over-discipline or physical punishment that is inappropriate to the child’s age or condition. If a resulting injury is not considered serious, it may be considered a form of neglect.

Working Definition:

Physical abuse occurs when a parent (or person legally responsible) inflicts or allows to be inflicted a serious physical injury. These are limited to:

  • Death
  • Serious or protracted disfigurement
  • Protracted impairment of physical or emotional health
  • Protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily organPhysical abuse also occurs if a parent (or person legally responsible) creates an immiment danger of harm.
    – A parent leaves a child home alone in a house with a gas leak in the stove and the child
    could be injured or killed by an explosion
    – A parent fired a gun at a child, and missed hitting the childIf a person who is not legally responsible for the care of the child commits any of these acts, it is considered physical assault. This is a criminal act. All cases of physical assault of a child should be referred to the police.


Different kinds of neglect may result from things that a parent/caretaker does, as well as things that a parent/caretaker doesn’t do.

  • Things that a parent does: Neglect occurs when a parent/caretaker does something to the child that results in physical, mental, or emotional harm; when a parent causes physical injuries which are harmful to the child, but are not as medically serious as those that would meet the definition of physical abuse; and when a parent misuses drugs or alcohol in a way that harms the child physically or emotionally.
  • Things that a parent doesn’t do: Neglect occurs when a child is harmed physically, mentally or emotionally because a parent/caretaker fails to provide a minimal level of care for the child’s basic needs. Poverty, however, is not the same as neglect.

Working Definition:

Neglect occurs when a parent (or person legally responsible) fails to provide a minimum level of care by doing something that inflicts harm, allows harm to be inflicted, or creates an imminent danger of harm. The harm, however, does not result in the kind of serious physical injury that is defined as physical abuse.

  • Excessive use of corporal punishment – Parent uses a stick to punish a child that leaves
    bruising on the legs and buttocks
  • Misuse of drugs or alcohol – (i.e., a four-year-old child is found on a street corner at night
    because the parent is drunk at home and unable to supervise)
  • Misuse of pornography – Parent allows a child to watch pornographic movies on a regular
    basis, and the child begins to act out the scenes with other children at schoolNeglect also occurs if a parent (or person legally responsible) fails to provide a minimum level of care—food, water, clothing, housing, medical and dental care, education and adequate guardianship—to a point at which the child’s health and welfare are compromised.
    – A parent who is homeless refuses to accept emergency housing and is sleeping under
    a bridge with his or her child in the winter
    – A parent doesn’t provide food, and the child is underweight and listless
    – A child’s educational progress is impaired because the parent is aware that the child is
    missing school and fails to do anything about it
    – A child has painful tooth decay and the parent does not seek dental care
    – A preschool child is left home alone by the parent