Can you sue a parent for abuse? Learn more about criminal justice and financial compensation for survivors of child abuse and neglect.
Child protective services receive millions of referrals each year for children who are abused or neglected. ¹
Children have a moral and legal right to protection and safety.
The abuse of a child is a heinous act causing permanent psychological, sexual, emotional, social, and physical damage to the child.
Child abuse occurs amid all socioeconomic lines, religions, and cultures. It includes physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
Victims of child abuse and neglect deserve justice. Adult survivors of child abuse often ask if they can sue the abusing parent. Here is where we unpack the legal definitions of child abuse and neglect, mandatory reporting laws, and compensation options for child abuse victims.
Defining Child Abuse and Neglect
Federal agencies recognize several categories of child abuse and neglect:
- Physical Abuse
- Sexual Abuse
- Emotional Abuse
- Substance Abuse
Physical discipline such as spanking or paddling is not considered abuse so long the discipline is reasonable, and the child isn’t physically injured.
Abuse in all its forms is typically inflicted by a parent, caregiver, or another person who has responsibility for a child.
Physical abuse of a child is a non-accidental physical injury (ranging from mild bruising to death) caused by pushing, shoving, scratching, punching, kicking or biting, burning with cigarettes or scalding water, choking, hitting with hands or other objects, violent shaking, or otherwise harming a child.
Neglect is the failure to provide for a child’s basic physical, medical, emotional, or educational needs. Examples of neglect include:
- Failing to provide enough food for a child
- Leaving young children without supervision
- Leaving children in hot vehicles
- Not seeking life-saving medical care for a child
- Not providing for a child’s educational needs
Sexual abuse of a child includes fondling of the child’s genitalia, breasts, or buttocks; forcing a child to fondle an adult; penetration with a penis or other object; indecent exposure; sodomy; photographing a child’s genitalia or the female breast area; exposing a child to pornographic materials; and exploitation through prostitution.
Emotional abuse, also called psychological abuse, damages a child’s emotional development or sense of self-worth. Emotional abuse may include terrorizing the child with threats of violence or abandonment, locking the child in or out of the home, bullying, manipulating or humiliating the child, constant criticism, and withholding of affection, support, and guidance.
Substance abuse is an element of abuse or neglect that includes prenatal use of illegal drugs that harms the child (such as babies born addicted to heroin). It also includes manufacturing methamphetamine where there is a child, giving drugs or alcohol to a child, and caregiver use of drugs or alcohol that impairs the person’s ability to care for a child.
Definitions of abuse differ among jurisdictions. Find your State Child Abuse and Neglect Laws here.
Gathering Evidence of Child Abuse
Most abusers are adept at covering up evidence of abuse. Using overt or implied threats, the abuser can often manipulate the child into remaining silent. When another adult suspects abuse, the abuser usually has a wealth of excuses.
Domestic violence plays a key role in many child abuse cases. Adults who abuse their partners tend to also abuse their children. Younger children are particularly vulnerable to domestic violence. Approximately eight out of ten children killed by abuse are under the age of four.
Whether out of fear of getting sued by the abuser for making false accusations, or a sense of not wanting to “get involved,” child abuse often goes undetected or unreported by those closest to it.
Don’t worry about being sued for reporting child abuse. State programs receiving federal funds are required to provide immunity to people who make good-faith reports of child abuse or neglect.
Trust your gut. If you suspect a child may be in danger, call 911 or call your State Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Numbers.
Behavioral Signs of Abuse and Neglect
Sometimes a child will tell a teacher or another adult they are being abused. More commonly, children show signs of potential abuse or neglect that may include:
- Changes in behavior or school performance
- Difficulty learning or concentrating
- Untreated physical or medical problems
- Acting as though on the lookout for something bad to happen
- Unusually passive, withdrawn, or submissive behavior
- The child doesn’t want to go home
- The child avoids a certain person
- Parent and child don’t look at or touch each other
- Parent and child admit mutual dislike
Parent or caregiver signs of potential abuse or neglect may include:
- Blames the child for problems in school, or denies there is a problem
- Tells caregivers to use harsh discipline with the child
- Sees the child as a burden, or bad, or evil
- Doesn’t care about the child
- Has unrealistic standards for the child to meet
- Uses the child to meet their own emotional needs
Red Flags of Child Abuse and Neglect
Strong indicators of abuse and neglect are when a child:
- Steals food or money
- Lacks needed medical or dental care
- Doesn’t have clothing suitable for the weather
- Has unexplained bruises, burns, broken bones, or other injuries
- Appears frightened of the parents or other adults
- Abuses animals or pets
- Has a hard time walking or sitting
- Refuses to undress for gym, or participate in physical activities
- Runs away from home
- Displays unusual sexual knowledge or behavior
- Contracts an STD or becomes pregnant, especially if the child is under the age of 14
- Tries to commit suicide
Confirmation of physical or sexual abuse of a child often comes from a medical examination combined with the child’s statement identifying the abuser and confirming the form of abuse.
Unfortunately, getting to that point is a challenge. The first step toward saving an abused or neglected child is identifying the symptoms of abuse.
Who Can Spot Child Abuse and Neglect?
Identifying symptomatic behavior of an abused child often begins in school. Teachers are often the first to suspect abuse. They see the child daily and can notice changes in the child’s mood, appearance, and personality.
Teachers should keep a written log of what they believe are symptoms of abuse. In most cases, the teacher’s log is admissible evidence in a civil or criminal court proceeding against the abuser.
School officials and medical care providers are legally obligated to report suspicions of child abuse.
Friends and extended family members can also identify symptomatic evidence of abuse. In addition to changes in the child’s mood or appearance, the child may suddenly become unusually withdrawn or fearful. Because of familiarity with the abused child, family and friends should be especially aware of changes in the child’s behavior.
Neighbors can also recognize signs of abuse. Because of the proximity to the child’s home, the neighbor may hear screaming and yelling or notice occasions when someone locks the child out of the home. The neighbor may also see the sudden appearance of bruising on the child.
Neighbors can be immediate witnesses to the child’s circumstances. They may overhear parents making derogatory remarks, or witness an adult hitting, pushing or shoving the child.
What Happens After Reporting Child Abuse?
Suspected child abuse can be reported by calling 911 or calling your State Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Numbers.
Persons who report suspected child abuse in good faith are generally immune from liability, and their identity is protected from the abuser.
When a child may be in immediate danger, police will usually be dispatched. If they have reason to believe child abuse is happening, they will isolate the child from the adult and investigate at the scene. At the same time, the police will contact child protective services.
When the abuse is obvious, the police may arrest the abuser at the scene. The child welfare department will take temporary physical custody of the child pending a court hearing. The child may be released to a responsible relative or placed in foster care.
Child sexual abuse is a felony in all 50 states. So is aggravated physical abuse of a child. Prison sentences for convicted child abusers can range from five years to life in prison. Even if eventually paroled, the conditions of the abuser’s parole will include having no contact with the abused child or, sometimes, any children.
Child protective services investigators are duty-bound to respond to police requests for intervention and third-party reports of child abuse. Investigators also conduct their own examination of charges of abuse.
In most cases, children won’t be removed from a home without clear indications the child is in danger. However, the child will remain under the supervision of child welfare services until the parents can assure caseworkers that they will provide a safe environment.
Depending on the state or county, the family and the child are provided a variety of services that may include help with parenting, anger management, child care, and food assistance.
When police or child welfare services have evidence of sexual or physical injury from abuse or neglect, the abuser will face criminal charges.
Child Abuse Victim Compensation
Child abuse and neglect can lead to felony charges or less serious charges, depending on the state where the abuse occurred and the circumstances of the abuse. Criminal penalties for abuse and neglect can range from a lifetime prison sentence to supervised probation.
Abuse victims not only want justice, but they also deserve to get compensation for their damages.
Damages for child abuse or neglect may include:
- Medical costs
- Rehabilitation expenses for disabling injuries
- Mental health care costs, including inpatient and outpatient treatment
- Loss of future income
- Extreme emotional distress
Crime Victim Compensation Funds
Crime victim compensation programs help victims of violent crimes, including victims of child abuse, by paying the costs of medical care, mental health counseling, and lost time at work during treatment.
Many state compensation funds make special allowances for the adult survivors of child abuse with extended deadlines and relaxed eligibility requirements.
Find your State Crime Victim Compensation Program for contact information, application deadlines, and compensation benefit details.
Beware of the Statute of Limitations
A statute of limitations is the legal timeframe for an injured victim to file a lawsuit against the at-fault person. Each state has their own statute of limitations for different kinds of injuries.
In recent years, lawmakers have begun to appreciate the challenges faced by victims of child sexual abuse. The severe psychological impact of sexual abuse often means the victim is unable to recognize and articulate the abuse until well into adulthood.
Almost all states have a “tolling” of their statute of limitations for civil actions when the injured person is a minor. In other words, whether the child was hurt in a car accident or at the hands of an abuser, the timeframe for filing a lawsuit won’t begin to run until the injured person reaches the age of majority, usually eighteen years old.
Many states now give special consideration to adult survivors of child sexual abuse by extending the timeframe to sue the abuser or removing the deadline entirely.
Find the deadline for your location here: State Statutes of Limitations for Child Sexual Abuse Cases.
Institutional Child Abuse
When an institution or any one of its employees, associates, or agents commit the abuse, the child has a right to seek compensation. The abused child’s parents or legal guardian can retain a private attorney to represent them. The attorney can file lawsuits against the accused abuser personally and the institution itself.
In cases of institutional abuse, the child was in the care of a person who had a role of authority over the child. We have all read of horrific acts of child sexual abuse by clergy, sports coaches, school teachers, scout leaders, and others.
In such cases, the abuse victim may succeed in getting compensation from the institution as well as the individual abuser if there is proof the institution should have known the abuser posed a danger to children.
In some cases of institutional child abuse, the abused child’s restitution may include punitive damages. These are amounts of money the court orders to effectively punish the institution and the abuser. In cases of severe or prolonged abuse, punitive damages can rise into the millions of dollars.
Can I Sue My Abusive Parent?
If you are an adult survivor of child abuse and the abuser was your parent or legal guardian, filing a lawsuit for damages is probably an exercise in futility.
In cases where the parent has been convicted of sexual abuse or physical injury to a child, the abuser may be in jail or prison. While the conviction and incarceration of the abuser is plenty of proof of their liability, they probably don’t have any money or financial assets that could be used to pay any award you might win in civil court.
Winning a civil lawsuit against a parent for unreported abuse will be difficult, but not impossible. For a lawsuit to succeed, you must have evidence the abuse took place. Without documentation to verify the abuse, like medical records dating back to the time of the abuse, police reports, or records of complaints to child protective services, you may not have an actionable claim.
Don’t give up! Talk to an experienced personal injury attorney to discuss the child abuse laws and victim’s rights in your state.
Resources for Victims of Child Abuse
National Child Abuse Hotline
1 (800) 422-4453
National Domestic Violence Hotline
1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY)
National Association of Crime Victim Compensation Boards
Links to every state’s compensation program
National Sexual Assault Hotline
1-800-656-4673 (24/7 hotline)
1in6 Online Helpline
A helpline for Male Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse and Adult Sexual Assault (24/7, free, anonymous)
1in6 Online Support Groups
Support Groups for Male Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse and Adult Sexual Assault (free, anonymous)
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