What is Child Abuse – In the context of Family Law matters

By September 20, 2023 No Comments

Child abuse may be considered different things in different contexts. Here we discuss what is in the specific context of Family Law matters. Child abuse involves the deliberate physical and/or emotional ill-treatment towards a child with the intent to cause harm to their physical and/or mental health. This ill-treatment can be in the form of sexual abuse, negligent treatment, exploitation, and much more and would usually occur in a relationship where responsibility, trust or power exist. Child abuse may be intentional or unintentional. [1]


The perpetrator of child abuse can include people of any ages including adults, young people, and older children.


There are two definitions to child abuse: a legal type and a medical/psychological type. The legal definition of child abuse is quite broad whereas the medical definition is quite precise and detailed. The difference between both definitions matter as they can influence the outcome of a court case and influence how the term is being interpreted in the circumstances of the case.


The way child abuse is protected under civil law is also different to how it is protected under criminal law. The civil law has a lower standard of proof and focuses on the child’s best interest and their future safety. In a criminal matter, child abuse focuses on the past and the guilt of the perpetrator. It also has a higher standard of proof as parties will have to proof that the child abuse is ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’.[2]


Recognising child abuse

Emotional abuse

Similar to adults, children can also be affected by words and language and it can have an impact on their social and cognitive development. Signs of emotional abuse can include:

  • Persistent shaming and belittling
  • Calling names and making negative comments
  • Constant yelling, threatening, or bullying
  • Using words such as “worthless”, “useless” or “not good” to describe the child when talking to them
  • Deliberately ignoring or rejecting a child as a form of punishment
  • Exposing the child to domestic violence.[3]


Physical abuse

Physical abuse occurs when the child is physically harmed or injured by the perpetrator. The abusive parent usually justifies their action as a simple form of discipline to make their children behave.[4] Physical abuse differs from physical punishment to discipline a child. Certain elements that are involved in physical abuse do not occur in physical punishment. These elements include:

  • Unpredictability: the child doesn’t know what can trigger the parent’s anger.[5]
  • Lashing out in anger: using anger to assert control and dominance.[6]
  • Instilling fear in the child to control their behaviour.


Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse towards a child comes in many forms. It can be as simple as exposing a child to sexual situations or pornography, to physically touching them. Sexual abuse will usually leave the feeling of guilt and shame to a child after it has been performed.[7] This guilt and shame can make it difficult for the child to alert others of what is happening to them as the child worry that others won’t believe them, or will be angry with them.[8] Some warning signs of sexual abuse in children include:

  • Having trouble walking or sitting
  • Contracting an STD or getting pregnant, especially if they’re under the age of 14[9]
  • Pain or irritation to the genital areas.


Support for Child Abuse

At any situation where you recognise signs of child abuse or if a child alerts you of child abuse, it is normal to feel overwhelmed and confused. Make sure to approach the situation with caution and reassure the child that you take them seriously and they are not in the wrong. It is also important to remain calm and not interrogate the child as interrogation might make them more flustered and confused.  At any situation where the child’s safety or your safety might be threatened, report the situation and leave it to the professionals.

At Joss Legal, we can assist you with your concerns regarding child abuse and provide you with support on the steps needed to take to resolve the situation.

Joss Legal prides itself in providing supportive and affordable advice to our clients. If you have any enquiries regarding child abuse or alternatively, would like to book in with one of our experienced solicitors for an initial consultation, please contact (08) 65559 7480 or via email at

[1] Karen Broadley, Kathryn Goldsworthy, Rhys Price-Robertson, Leah Bromfield, & Nick Richardson, ‘What is Child Abuse and Neglect?’, AIFS (Policy & Practice Paper, September 2018)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Melinda smith, M.A., Lawrence Robinson, and Jeanne Segal, “Child Abuse and Neglect”, Domestic Abuse, (Article, n.d)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.