There is little society holds in lower esteem than abuse of a child. It can be one of the most damaging and hard to erase blots on a person’s reputation and the consequences of all sorts – social, career, financial, and emotional – are devastating. It only takes a single, unsubstantiated accusation to put you in that most undesirable of associations.

What constitutes child abuse?

Both federal and state legal codes address child abuse. CAPTA – the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act – calls child abuse any act or failure to act which leads to or presents the risk of death, serious harm (either physical or emotional), sexual abuse or exploitation. States often take the definition further. Under New Mexico’s criminal law, non-accidental injuries like burns, bruises and physical marks are included in the definition. New Mexico, like many other states, includes the use of controlled substances during pregnancy as child abuse as well.

How bad is it?

If convicted of child abuse, you may face incarceration. The actual jail time may be the least of your worries; child abusers are looked upon with contempt by other prisoners and their torture and even murder while behind bars have been documented.

Once released, the convict faces probation and parole. For the rest of your life, you will be deprived of privacy and civil rights like voting. It will be difficult to find work. It you had a profession, it will be ruined.
Sex offender registries exist where the public can see your face and address if you are convicted of child sexual abuse or predation. You may be prohibited from living within a certain distance of a day care center or elementary school.

How common are false accusations?

Unproven accusations can be devastating despite being completely false. Their ease of use along with laws that protect people who report abuse make them dismayingly common, especially in custody battles and divorce cases.

What should I do?

Anyone who has been falsely accused of child abuse must respond quickly and decisively. Unchallenged accusations have a way of spreading and growing until they eventually become “common knowledge.” It’s no use just hoping for the best or assuming the court will be fair, if it comes to that. The idea of a child abuser is so repugnant that even flimsy accusations have a way of persuading. Get a lawyer who specializes in defending against such accusations.

What about spanking?

Is spanking or other forms of corporeal punishment considered child abuse? This depends on the state and your relationship to the child. As long as you are the parent and the punishment is carried out in a way that does not injure the child, some states still take a benign attitude toward traditional spanking as punishment. But other states categorically ban any corporeal punishment to any child as being inherently risky and emotionally damaging to children. Most mandate reporting even the suspicion of child abuse. It’s best to speak with an attorney in any case.