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Children's Rights

Criminalizing Child Abuse

Real concern over child abuse did not surface until after the Civil War (1861–65) in the 1870s. At that time, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals went to court over an eight-year-old New York girl who was whipped and beaten regularly by her foster parents. The society argued in court that children deserved at least the same protections as animals from abuse.

The society's argument worked. The foster mother was convicted of assault and sentenced to one year of hard labor. This court victory led to the establishment of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1874. The following year the New York legislature passed a law prohibiting child abuse.

Eleven-year-old Joe Roach was found chained to the bed in his home by a Houston deputy sheriff in 1954. The boy said that he'd spent the night before sleeping in the doghouse in his backyard rather than going into the house to be mistreated. (© Bettmann/Corbis)

Child abuse did not catch national attention, however, for another ninety years. In 1962 Dr. Henry Kempe published an article called "The Battered Child Syndrome" in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The article described various signs of child abuse to help doctors detect abuse among their patients. The signs or symptoms mentioned included skin, bone, and abdominal injuries. Behavioral clues included anxiety or depression, or self-destructive actions.

The article had a far wider affect than simply alerting physicians. Media attention about the article greatly increased public awareness of child abuse. By 1970 every state had passed child abuse laws. These laws required teachers, doctors, childcare staff, and social workers to report suspected child abuse to authorities. Failing to report suspected abuse could lead to criminal charges; eighteen states legally required anyone who suspected abuse to report it, even friends of the child's family.

Every state also has laws limiting the criminal liability of those who report suspicious symptoms. They cannot be sued or criminally charged for making reports that prove inaccurate as long as they acted in good faith or with the best interests of the child in mind. To support the growing caseload, Congress passed the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) in 1974. The act required states to create mandatory requirements for people to report suspected cases of child abuse. It was now a crime in all fifty states to not report suspected child abuse. It also created the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect with the Department of Health and Human Services and provided federal funding for child abuse investigations and the protective services provided for abused children.

State and federal child abuse programs offered other information about how to detect abuse. For example, doctors and teachers may look for suspicious statements by parents or the child, public humiliation of a child by the parents, unexplained absences, or a sudden drop in school grades.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawChildren's Rights - Protection Of Children, Childcare, Child Labor, Kidnapping And Abduction, Forms Of Child Abuse