In the U.S., the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) sets forth a federal minimum definition of child abuse and neglect. This act has been amended several times and was last reauthorized on December 20, 2010 by the CAPTA Reauthorization Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-320). However, states have wide discretion in determining specific abuse and neglect definitions. How maltreatment is defined and consequently reported, screened and investigated has significant implications for children, families, and local communities. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to determine the extent to which states have narrowed or expanded child abuse and neglect definitions over time. Using public health law research methods, we analyzed changes in state definitions using publicly available data from 2005-2016.
State definitions of child abuse and neglect were gathered from the Child Welfare Information Gateway’s series “Definitions of Child Abuse and Neglect: State Statutes” for the following available time periods: 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2014, and 2016. Following empirical research standards for statutory law and regulation measurement as described by Anderson et al. (2012), data were coded to capture changes in descriptions of abuse and neglect types, exemptions to definitions, and standards for reporting maltreatment. Initially, a single researcher thematically coded and quantified changes in the definitions. Two additional researchers independently coded the definitions a second time. Interrater reliability was established at 100%.
Between 2005 to 2016, 50 states and the District of Columbia (D.C.) (n=51) made 132 changes that expanded definitions, and 40 states and D.C. (n=41) made 58 changes that narrowed them. Analyses revealed common patterns and also important differences in the type, direction, and number of changes across years. For example, in 2005 and 2007 the majority of states expanded standards for reporting and added additional maltreatment types such as abandonment to neglect definitions. Several states also began narrowing their definitions by introducing exemptions such as poverty. Between 2009 and 2016, the majority of changes involved redefining specific maltreatment types including the substantial redefinition of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, and the addition of parental substance use. Some of these trends correlate with specific amendments to CAPTA that were made during this time through the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 and the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016. Although evolving CAPTA requirements are reflected in some trends in definition changes, qualitative comparisons of individual state changes suggest variation that appears to go beyond CAPTA requirements.
Conclusions and Implications
Evolving state definitions reflect responses to changes in CAPTA as well responses to local child maltreatment dynamics. Multiple changes in the same year were noted for certain states; therefore, future research is needed to further distinguish the relationship between types of changes, trends within and across states, and the subsequent impact of these changes on child maltreatment reporting and outcomes.