What is Child Maltreatment?

About Prevention logo Child maltreatment is one of the most significant health threats of our time. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention considers child abuse and neglect to be a public health issue with lifelong consequences.[1] 


Child Maltreatment is any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk or serious harm.[2] Abuse consists of inflicting physical or emotional injury, such as perpetrating physical, psychological, or sexual abuse.  Maltreatment also includes neglect, which encompasses a caregiver's failure to act to provide for a child's physical or emotional needs or failure to protect a child from harm or potential harm.

Child Maltreatment Prevention

The goal of child maltreatment prevention is to address the potential threat to children's physical and emotional safety and well-being. At the same time, prevention focuses on building personal attributes, nurturing relationships, and supportive environments that equip children with the resilience to withstand adversity and thrive.

Prevention consists of approaches or interventions that have the following three characteristics:

  • They are available both to the general population or a higher risk sub-group of the population.
  • They target parents and parental needs prior to the onset or in the very early stages of concerning events or behavior.         
  • Their goal is to address the risk of and prevent the occurrence or reoccurrence of child abuse and neglect.

For more information, see our Public Health Framework and Social-Ecological Framework pages.

Prevention Versus Treatment

Child maltreatment prevention is different than treatment. Treatment is aimed at eliminating child maltreatment behavior after it has already occurred and reducing the impact on the victim. Prevention focuses on inhibiting maltreatment behavior prior to its onset or addressing any early indications that it may occur.

  • Teaching all parents stress reduction techniques before they leave the hospital with their new baby or offering a class on stress reduction techniques to a parent during a well-baby pediatric visit are prevention approaches.
  • Offering an intervention that includes stress reduction techniques after a parent has slapped or screamed at their baby is a treatment approach.

When child maltreatment is not prevented, it often results in both short- and long-term negative effects. Healthy growth and development during childhood is disrupted, which can eventually lead to serious health problems in adulthood as well.