If you’re a parent, you’ve experienced anger toward your child for misbehaving and it hasn’t always been expressed in a constructive way.
A large and growing body of scientific research suggests corporal punishment is not an effective form of discipline. Numerous medical and mental health bodies discourage the practice since it does not improve the child’s discipline.
However, the public’s understanding of the boundary between discipline and child abuse is unclear.
For example, is spanking child abuse? How long can a child be left at home unsupervised? Where is the line between discipline and child abuse?
What Is Colorado’s Definition of Child Abuse?
From Colorado Revised Statutes § 18-6-401:
A person commits child abuse if such person causes an injury to a child’s life or health, or permits a child to be unreasonably placed in a situation that poses a threat of injury to the child’s life of health, or engages in a continued pattern of conduct that results in malnourishment, lack of proper medical care, cruel punishment, mistreatment or an accumulation of injuries that ultimately results in the death of a child or serious bodily injury to a child.
Child, as it appears above and in the statute, is defined as a person younger than 16 years old.
Rather than intentional physical acts of violence, this law focuses on acts of neglect and negligence. Placing a child in a dangerous or risky situation, even if there is no harmful intent, can result in child abuse charges whether an injury occurs or not.
For example, smoking marijuana in an apartment while a child sleeps could result in charges—so could leaving a child alone in a car to run inside the grocery store.
Additionally, failing to meet a child’s basic needs (e.g., food, shelter, medicine, education, etc.) can be deemed neglect. Failing to take a child to the doctor when he/she is in need of medical attention could result in child abuse charges.
Colorado’s child abuse laws also include protections to deter emotional and psychological harm. Threats and abusive language can insight child abuse charges, even if the language isn’t directed at a child (e.g., threatening a spouse in front of a child).
The statute is very broad, and it is impossible to describe every behavior that could constitute abuse. However, the law includes specific exceptions for parents and caretakers.
Discipline vs. Child Abuse
From Colorado Revised Statutes § 18-1-703:
The use of physical force upon another person which would otherwise constitute an offense is justifiable and not criminal under any of the following circumstances:
A parent, guardian, or other person entrusted with the care and supervision of a minor or an incompetent person, and a teacher or other person entrusted with the care and supervision of a minor, may use reasonable and appropriate physical force upon the minor or incompetent person when and to the extent it is reasonably necessary and appropriate to maintain discipline or promote the welfare of the minor or incompetent person.
In other words, it’s legal to use force to discipline your child in Colorado; however, the force must be “reasonable” and “appropriate.”
Spanking is a good example. It’s legal to spank a child in Colorado, however, the amount of force needed to correct a child’s behavior is subjective, so long as it’s reasonable and causes no bodily injury to a child.
For child abuse cases that go to trial, what’s deemed reasonable and appropriate is decided by a judge or jury.
The legal definition of child abuse is only committed when a person acts with criminal negligence, or a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would exercise in a similar situation; or a person fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk.