Home / Definitions and Considerations / Definition of Child Maltreatment

Home / Definitions and Considerations / Definition of Child Maltreatment

Definition of Child Maltreatment

Many educators today are very much aware of the signs and symptoms of child abuse and neglect and for you, this may be a review. However, a review never hurts since abuse and neglect may take very different forms depending upon the case. In this section of the Manual, we have tried to present a variety of different circumstances that reflect the environment in which children live today. But, first, let’s consider the types of abuse and neglect that children may suffer.

Child maltreatment can be broadly defined as any type of cruelty inflicted upon a child, including mental or emotional abuse, physical harm, neglect, sexual abuse, and sexual exploitation and human trafficking by way of being a sexually exploited child or a subject of labor trafficking. Although all states have child abuse prevention statutes and regulations 84 that define these basic categories, specific definitions from state to state may differ. For purposes of this Manual, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) regulations offer the following definitions of child abuse and neglect: 85

  • Abuse: The non-accidental commission of any act by a caretaker upon a child under age 18 which causes, or creates a substantial risk of physical or emotional injury; or constitutes a sexual offense under the laws of the Commonwealth; or any sexual contact between a caretaker and a child under the care of that individual. Abuse is not dependent upon location (i.e., abuse can occur while the child is in an out-of-home or in-home setting).
  • Neglect: Failure by a caretaker, either deliberately or through negligence or inability, to take those actions necessary to provide a child with minimally adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, supervision, emotional stability and growth or other essential care; provided, however, that such inability is not due solely to inadequate economic resources or solely to the existence of a handicapping condition. This definition is not dependent upon location (i.e., neglect can occur while the child is in an out-of-home or in-home setting).
  • Emotional Injury: Is an impairment to or disorder of the intellectual or psychological capacity of a child as evidenced by observable and substantial reduction in the child’s ability to function within a normal range of performance and behavior.
  • Physical Injury: Death, or fracture of a bone, subdural hematoma, burns, impairment of any organ, and any other such nontrivial injury; or soft tissue swelling or skin bruising, depending on such factors as the child’s age, circumstances under which the injury occurred, and the number and location of bruises; or addiction to a drug or drugs at birth; or failure to thrive.
  • Institutional Abuse or Neglect: Abuse or neglect which occurs in any facility for children, including, but not limited to, group homes, residential or public or private schools, hospitals, detention and treatment facilities, family foster care homes, group day care centers and family day care homes.
  • Sexually Exploited Child: 86 Any person under the age of 18 who has been subjected to sexual exploitation because such person:
    • is the victim of the crime of sexual servitude pursuant to section 50 of M.G.L chapter 265 87 or is the victim of sex trafficking as defined in 22 United States Code 7105 (See more below on Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children)
    • engages, agrees to engage or offers to engage in sexual conduct with another person in exchange for a fee, in violation of subsection (a) of section 53A of M.G.L. chapter 272; 88 or in exchange for food, shelter, clothing, education or care.
    • is a victim of the crime of inducing a minor into prostitution under section 4A of M.G.L. chapter 272.
    • engages in common night walking or common streetwalking under section 53 of M.G.L. chapter 272.
  • Human Trafficking: 89 A person who is subjected to harboring, recruitment, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting for the purpose of:
    • sex trafficking (i.e., inducement to perform a commercial sex act, forced sexual services and/or sexually explicit performance).
    • labor trafficking (i.e., forced services, involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery).
  • Problematic Sexual Behaviors (PSB): PSB are deviations from normative or typical sexual behavior. They are child-initiated behaviors involving sexual body parts (i.e., genitals, anus, buttocks, or breasts) and are developmentally inappropriate and/or potentially harmful to themselves or others 90 (See more below).

84 See 110 CMR, Section 2.00 (https://www.mass.gov/doc/110-cmr-2-glossary/download). Note that Massachusetts has no statutory definition of child abuse and neglect applicable to mandated reporters.  DCF’s regulations indicate what DCF screens-in and investigates, not the full scope of what can be considered child abuse and neglect. When in doubt, call DCF and seek guidance.

85  https://safekidsthrive.org/about-us-skt/about-child-sexual-abuse/what-is-child-abuse-and-neglect/

86 https://www.mass.gov/info-details/mass-general-laws-c119-ss-21#section-21-

87 https://www.mass.gov/doc/human-trafficking-statutes-102018/download

88 https://malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartIV/TitleI/Chapter272/Section53A

89 https://malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartIII/TitleII/Chapter233/Section20m and https://malegislature.gov/laws/generallaws/partiv/titlei/chapter265/section50, and https://malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartIV/TitleI/Chapter265/Section51.

90 National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth (https://ncsby.org/content/overview-and-definitions)


Page 14 of 59


Sign Up to Access Your Learning Center

Customized child sexual abuse prevention guidelines to meet the unique needs of any organization that serves children.

  • Evidence-informed guidance
  • Actionable prevention steps
  • Keeps track of your progress
  • Tailored learning tracks