What is Considered Child Abuse in North Carolina?

Child abuse

What Is Considered Child Abuse in North Carolina?

North Carolina has several laws in place to protect children from abuse. If Child Protective Services suspects a child is being abused, they may file a petition with the court to have the child removed from their parents or guardians. But what rises to the level of abuse in North Carolina?


According to N.C.G.S. 7B-101, a child who is less than 18 years old is considered abused if they are a victim of human trafficking or if the child’s parent or caretaker:


  • Inflicts serious physical injury on the child by non-accidental means
  • Creates a substantial risk of serious physical injury to the child
  • Uses cruel or grossly inappropriate procedures or devices to correct the child’s behavior
  • Commits, permits, or encourages the sexual victimization of the child (defined more fully in N.C.G.S. 7B-101)
  • Creates or allows the child to experience serious emotional damage (evidenced by the child’s severe anxiety, depression, withdrawal, or aggressive behavior toward themselves or others)
  • Encourages, directs, or approves of the child’s delinquent actions involving moral turpitude 


There isn’t as much case law in North Carolina about child abuse as there is about child neglect–but there are some common areas that come up during litigation that might be helpful to know. 


Common issues in child abuse cases


Corporal punishment: In North Carolina, you can use corporal punishment (physical punishment) to discipline your children. However, if the punishment becomes inappropriate or excessive, it may rise to the level of child abuse. When determining if child abuse has occurred, the NC Court of Appeals has directed judges to consider several factors, including the age of the child and whether any bruises or marks are temporary or longer-lasting. For instance, in one case the court ruled that temporary red marks are not determinative. But in another case, the court did find abuse occurred when an almost 4-year-old child had a six-inch bruise on his thigh that lasted over a week after he was hit with a brush. 


When parents use a device or procedure to change a child’s behavior, the court will focus on the severity and brutality of the devices or procedures used by the parent. For instance, in one case the court ruled a child was abused when the child’s mother used a belt to strike the child five times and left bruises on the inside and outside of his legs. The more severe the punishment, the more likely it is the court will determine it to be abuse. 

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Emotional damage: If a child suffers emotional damage (evidenced by severe anxiety, depression, withdrawal, or aggressive behavior toward themselves or others) at the hands of their parent or caretaker, North Carolina will consider the child to be abused. In the past, the court has ruled that evidence of serious emotional damage due to the mother’s abusive language and treatment of the child was enough to support a finding that the child was abused.


Physical injury by non-accidental means: This is one of the most common issues litigated in child abuse cases involving Child Protective Services. If a child has unexplained injuries, it’s possible the court could find that abuse has occurred. This is often the case with babies and younger children who cannot yet tell anyone what happened to them. In these circumstances, the court has ruled that if the child is in a parent or guardian’s exclusive custody, the child becomes injured, and the injury wasn’t self-inflicted or accidental, then a judge can infer the parent or guardian caused the injury. 


For instance, the NC Court of Appeals has held that a child was abused when the child had bruises and a skull fracture, the pediatrician concluded the child received an injury by non-accidental means, the mother’s explanation was inconsistent with the injuries, the child received the injuries during the mother’s scheduled custody time, and the mother failed to get medical attention for the child despite the fact that the injuries were obvious and severe. 


If you or someone you know has been accused of child abuse or has an open DSS investigation, contact our office today to speak with one of our knowledgeable child welfare attorneys to get your questions answered and discuss a plan for how to move forward.