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Child Maltreatment: Definitions

Child maltreatment is any act or series of acts of commission or omission by a parent or other caregiver (e.g., clergy, coach, teacher) that results in harm, potential for harm, or threat of harm to a child.

Acts of Commission (Child Abuse)

Words or overt actions that cause harm, potential harm, or threat of harm

Acts of commission are deliberate and intentional; however, harm to a child might not be the intended consequence. Intention only applies to caregiver acts—not the consequences of those acts. For example, a caregiver might intend to hit a child as punishment (i.e., hitting the child is not accidental or unintentional), but not intend to cause the child to have a concussion. The following types of maltreatment involve acts of commission:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Psychological abuse

Acts of Omission (Child Neglect)

Failure to provide needs or to protect from harm or potential harm

Acts of omission are the failure to provide for a child's basic physical, emotional, or educational needs or to protect a child from harm or potential harm. Like acts of commission, harm to a child might not be the intended consequence. The following types of maltreatment involve acts of omission:

  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional neglect
  • Medical and dental neglect
  • Educational neglect
  • Inadequate supervision
  • Exposure to violent environments

See the following reference document for more detailed information:

Leeb RT, Paulozzi L, Melanson C, Simon T, Arias I. Child Maltreatment surveillance: uniform definitions for public health and recommended data elements, version 1.0. Atlanta (GA): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control; 2008.
Available from URL:

Why Is a Consistent Definition Important?

A consistent definition is needed to monitor the incidence of child maltreatment and to examine trends over time. In addition, a clear and consistent definition helps determine the magnitude of child maltreatment and allows comparison of  the problem across jurisdictions.

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