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Types of Abuse

A General Overview of Maltreatment: Types of Abuse and Neglect

Maltreatment of children can be categorized as: Some examples that are commonly found in this category are:
    • Abandonment
    • Threats of harm to the child
    • Congenital drug addiction

Each type of abuse is too complicated to define in terms that are applicable across all situations and persons. One effect of this issue is that each state may differ in its own definition of abuse.

Another consideration is that what constitutes true abuse is not universally agreed upon. For example, one person may not consider spanking a child with a belt as abuse, but the same person may consider burning a cigarette into a childs arm as abuse. However, there are others who believe any type of physical harm is abuse. It varies from person to person because of differences among cultural, societal, personal, familial, and legal beliefs.

Substantiated Cases of Abuse and Recurrence of Abuse

The different types of maltreatment are as follows:1


The most common type of child abuse, about 59% involves neglect. In 2007, over 468,000 children suffered from neglect.

Neglect also results in about 34% of all fatalities. About 37% of all neglect cases involve children under the age of three. Even with these startling statistics, neglect is the least talked about.  

There are several forms of neglect including:

  • Physical neglect – Includes abandonment or inadequate supervision, and failure to provide for safety or physical needs. Includes failure to thrive, malnutrition, unsanitary conditions, or injuries from lack of supervision.
  • Educational neglect – Includes not enrolling child in school, or allowing child to engage in chronic truancy.
  • Emotional neglect - Includes withholding of affection or attention, failure to provide psychological care, ignoring the child’s emotional needs.
  • Medical neglect – Includes delay or denial of dental or health care, or withholding medical care due to religious beliefs. Some states will not prosecute due to withholding of health care due to religious beliefs but court orders are occasionally obtained to save a child's life.
  • Prenatal Neglect – Including newborns that are born addicted to or exposed to drugs.

More information on these classifications can be found at: http://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/usermanuals/neglect/chaptertwo.cfm#fnb2

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Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is the most obvious form of abuse. It is the one most people think about when they hear the words "child abuse." It is a non-accidental act that results in physical injury to a child such as punching, beating, kicking, biting, burning, breaking bones, hair pulling, and shaking a baby.

Approximately 11% of all child abuse cases are the result of physical abuse. In 2007 about 87,000 children were victims of physical abuse.

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Fetal Abuse

Fetal abuse is the result of a pregnant woman who abuses drugs or alcohol during her pregnancy. Child protective services may get involved if the obstetrician makes a report.

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Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse can generally be defined as any misuse of a child for sexual pleasure or gratification. It is the involvement of children in sexual activities that they do not fully comprehend, that they are unable to give informed consent to and/or that violates societal taboos.

Nearly 8% of all child abuse cases are the result of sexual abuse. In 2007, over 63,500 children were victims of sexual abuse.

Because of the graphic nature of the definitions of the categories of child abuse, please contact the Info Center for more information on child sexual abuse.

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Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior that can seriously interfere with a child?s positive development, psyche and self-concept. About 4.2% of all child abuse cases able to be substantiated are the result of emotional abuse. Emotional abuse is hard to identify due to no physical evidence.

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Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse is typically thought of as an emotional abuse. However, it has its own indicators and therefore, is identified as separate. It is significant because it affects a childs core beliefs, which in turn, can interfere with a multitude of aspects of the psyche.

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During 2007, the substantiated cases of abuse were broken down as follows:1

Neglect 59.0%
Physical Abuse 10.8%
Sexual Abuse 7.6%
Psychological Maltreatment 4.2%
Medical Neglect 0.9%
Other2 17.4%

Please note that the percentages total more than 100%. This is because a victims circumstance may have fallen into more than one category of maltreatment and each type was counted accordingly.

Recurrence of Abuse

The recurrence of abuse occurs when CPS has not been successful at preventing abuse after intervening. However, since 2004 the number of states in compliance with the Childrens Bureau National Standard of Recurrence increased from 17 to 23 states in 2006.

National standards have been met in a study for Child Welfare Outcomes 2003: Annual Report for recurrence during the 6 month period that was reviewed as seen in the statistic that 6.1% or less of those children had an additional substantiated or indicated report within that time frame.5

Recurrence of Neglect7

Subsequent visits of CPS tend to be for neglect regardless of whether or not the first visit was for neglect to begin with. Most often, the type of neglect that draws CPS back for a visit is lack of supervision.

Factors associated with a child experiencing recurrence include:6

  • If the child has a disability
  • If the child was a prior victim
  • If the child is in foster care
  • If the child is exclusively American Indian/Alaska Native
  • If the child is younger than 3 years of age

Those who are psychologically maltreated are more likely to experience recurrence, as well as those who have multiple maltreatments followed by those who have been neglected. Those abused by a father as well as another person are also more likely to experience recurrence.

1 U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Administration on Children Youth & Families. Child Maltreatment 2007 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2009). Retrieved April 3 2009 from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/pubs/cm07/index.htm

2 The "other" category may include: abandonment, threats of harm to the child, congenital drug addiction, or any other type of condition depending on the state definitions that may not apply to the main categories.

3 U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Administration on Children Youth & Families. Child Maltreatment 2004 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2006). Retrieved March 15, 2007 from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/pubs/cm04/cm04.pdf

4 This is the number of states who reported this information for this study. Refer to the original resource of this information for more details.

5 U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth & Families. Child Welfare Outcomes 2003: Annual Report. (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2006). Retrieved August 15, 2007 from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/pubs/cwo03/cwo03.pdf

6 U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Administration on Children Youth & Families. Child Maltreatment 2004 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2006). Retrieved March 15, 2007 from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/pubs/cm04/cm04.pdf

7 DePanfilis, D. (2006). Child neglect: A guide for prevention, assessment and intervention. Dept. HHS, et al. http://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/usermanuals/neglect/index.cfm
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