Definitions of abuse and neglect

Learn about the definitions of abuse and neglect that the Department of Children and Families (DCF) uses.

Table of Contents


This definition is not dependent upon location. Abuse can occur while the child is in an out-of-home or an in-home setting.

  1. The non-accidental commission of any act by a caregiver which causes or creates a substantial risk of physical or emotional injury or sexual abuse of a child; or
  2. The victimization of a child through sexual exploitation or human trafficking, regardless if the person responsible is a caregiver.

Caregiver definition

  • A child’s parent, stepparent, guardian, or any household member entrusted with the responsibility for a child’s health or welfare
  • Any other person entrusted with responsibility for a child’s welfare, whether in the child’s home, a relative’s home, a school setting, a child care setting (including babysitting), a foster home, a group care facility, or any other comparable setting. As such “caregiver” includes, but is not limited to:
    • School teachers
    • Babysitters
    • School bus drivers
    • Camp counselors

The “caregiver” definition should be construed broadly and inclusively to encompass any person who at the time in question is entrusted with a degree of responsibility for the child. This specifically includes a caregiver who is him/herself a child such as a babysitter under age 18.

Physical injury definition

Death, fracture of a bone, subdural hematoma, burns, impairment of any organ, soft tissue swelling, skin bruising and any other such nontrivial injury depending upon such factors as the child’s age, circumstances under which the injury occurred, and the number and location of bruises.

Emotional injury definition

An impairment to or disorder of the intellectual or psychological capacity of a child as evidenced by an observable and substantial reduction in the child’s ability to function with a normal range of performance and behavior.

Sexual abuse definition

Any non-accidental act by a caregiver upon a child that constitutes a sexual offense under the laws of the Commonwealth or any sexual contact between a caregiver and a child for whom the caregiver is responsible.

Sexually exploited child definition

 As defined in MGL Chapter 119, Section 21, any person under the age of 18 who has been subjected to sexual exploitation because such person:

  • Is the victim of the crime of sexual servitude pursuant to section 50 of chapter 265 or is the victim of sex trafficking as defined in 22 United States Code 7105
  • Engages, agrees to engage or offers to engage in sexual conduct with another person in exchange for a fee, in violation of subsection (a) of section 53A of chapter 272, or in exchange for food, shelter, clothing, education or care
  • Is a victim of the crime of inducing a minor into prostitution under section 4A of chapter 272, or
  • Engages in common night walking or common streetwalking under section 53 of chapter 272

Human trafficking victim definition

The following is based on MGL Chapter 233, Section 20M and MGL Chapter 265, Sections 50 and 51.

A person who is subjected to harboring, recruitment, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting for the purpose of:

  • Sex trafficking (i.e., inducement to perform a commercial sex act, forced sexual services and/or sexually explicit performance), and/or
  • Labor trafficking (i.e., forced services, involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery)


Failure by a caregiver, either deliberately or through negligence or inability, to take those actions necessary to provide a child with minimally adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, supervision, emotional stability and growth, or other essential care, including malnutrition or failure to thrive; provided, however, that such inability is not due solely to inadequate economic resources or solely to the existence of a handicapping condition.

Substance exposed newborn (SEN)

A newborn who was exposed to alcohol or other drugs ingested by the mother in utero, whether or not this exposure is detected at birth through a drug screen or withdrawal symptoms. A SEN may also be experiencing Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), which are symptoms and signs exhibited by a newborn due to drug withdrawal. NAS is a subset of SEN. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) as diagnosed by a qualified licensed medical professional is also a subset of SEN.

Shaken baby syndrome

Infants, babies or small children who suffer injuries or death from severe shaking, jerking, pushing or pulling may have been victims of shaken baby syndrome (abusive head trauma). The act of shaking a baby is considered physical abuse, as spinal, head and neck injuries often result from violently shaking young children. It has been estimated that 50 percent of children who are victims of shaken baby syndrome die from their injuries.

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