According to a federal study, approximately 772,000 children suffered abuse or neglect in 2008, causing an estimated 1,740 deaths. The U.S. government and state governments alike have enacted various child abuse and child protection legislation to help alleviate the widespread abuse epidemic.
The vast majority of child abuse cases are heard in state courts, but in special circumstances, a federal court may have jurisdiction. Here are three things to know when it comes to federal child abuse laws:
There is one major federal law on the books regarding child abuse.
The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) was enacted in 1974 and has been reauthorized seven times since. Each authorization has brought additional provisions and protections, designed to bolster the original law on a state and local level. CAPTA outlines federal funding to states for prevention, investigation, treatment, and prosecution of child abuse cases; established the Office on Child Abuse and Neglect; and identifies the government’s role in preventing abuse through research, data collection, and other means.
CAPTA also establishes the minimum definition of child abuse and neglect that all states must follow. The CAPTA definition for abuse is “any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation,” or “an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”
Abuse on federal property is treated as a federal crime.
The most clear-cut reason for trying a child abuse case in federal court would be if the abuse occurred on federal property. Examples of federal property include Native American reservations, military bases, and any “prison, institution, or facility in which persons are held” by agreement with or at the direction of a federal agency. (In other words, anywhere that people live or work as an official part of the federal government.)
Crossing state lines for child abuse is a federal crime.
18 U.S. Code § 2241 – 18 U.S. Code § 2244 deal with sexual abuse of a minor on a federal level. Under section 2241, which addresses aggravated sexual abuse, anyone who crosses a state line with the intent to engage in a sexual act with someone under 12 years old (or 16 years old, provided the accused is at least 4 years older than the minor), could face a minimum of 30 years in prison, in addition to fines.
Essentially, if the abuse occurred in just one state and there are no special circumstances to account for (e.g. a military base or other federal property), it will typically be tried in state court. However, if the abuse spanned multiple states or deals with one of the circumstances discussed above, it could be tried in federal court (and could be subject to the enhanced penalties that come with federal cases).