Abuse is a term we are hearing a lot of lately. There is no doubt that abuse is a serious problem – Jerry Sandusky is one recent example.

False claims of abuse have also been in the news. Jodi Arias claimed to have been abused, in her unsuccessful attempt to defend against murder charges. The jury didn’t believe her, which is not surprising given the facts of that case. [Disclaimer: I do not claim to have analyzed all of the facts of that lengthy trial, but what I have heard makes it hard to believe anything that she says].

In more mundane situations, allegations of abuse are a regular part of the work of lawyers who handle family law cases. These come up in Protection from Abuse Petitions, Child Custody matters, Juvenile cases, and at times, in a Divorce. Abuse may mean different things in different circumstances.

Protection From Abuse in Pennsylvania

Often, one of the parties alleges that the other has abused them. This can lead to a protection order, which allows the court to order that the abuser stay away from the victim’s home, or place of employment. The victim could be awarded possession of a shared residence. This can important protections to a victim, but does has serious consequences for the person accused of abuse. He (or she) can be thrown out of his home, restricted from contacting his family, and temporarily barred from possessing firearms.

For the purposes of the Protection From Abuse Act, the statute, provides a definition. Stripped of the lawyer language, the statute defines “abuse” to include causing, or trying to cause a physical injury, physical or sexual abuse of children, or engaging in a course of conduct that puts causes someone to be in fear of bodily injury.

What constitutes abuse depends on the circumstances, which might include the history of the relationship between the parties. What some refer to as “mental abuse” might not be enough – the statute is focused on conduct that either causes, or places someone in fear of some physical injury. On the other hand, it seems clear that a person does not need to wait until the situation escalates into violence before seeking relief.

Pennsylvania’s Child Abuse Laws

Abuse also is defined in the Child Protective Services Law. This definition, which is used to determine in connection with reporting of child abuse, is narrower than that contained in the Protection From Abuse Act. The Child Protective Services Law talks about “serious” physical or mental injuries, as well as sexual abuse. Serious physical abuse is something that either “causes a child severe pain”, or some significant impairment.

The definition’s inclusion of only the most serious cases of child abuse serves two purposes: it limits the occasions when the government can intrude on the family home to situations presenting the most serious problems, and conserves government funds – investigating child abuse costs the state and local governments a lot of money. This can be frustrating to well-meaning persons who call the child abuse hotline in cases where they believe that a child isn’t receiving proper care, but hasn’t actually been abused within these definitions.

What Happens When Child Abuse is Reported

Each county in Pennsylvania has an agency responsible for investigating child abuse. This is often called Children and Youth Services, or something similar. All reports must be investigated. After the investigation is complete, they will determine that the report is founded, indicated, or unfounded. A founded report is one that has been found to be true in a court proceeding. An report is indicated when the agency determines that it is true. An report is unfounded either when it is determined not to be true, or where the conduct doesn’t rise to the level of child abuse.

A founded or indicated report can have consequences for the person committing abuse: they can be denied employment in jobs where they will come into contact with children. A person who is the subject of an indicated report can appeal that determination to the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare

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