Child abuse is difficult to define, and although many definitions exist in the legal and scientific literature, there is no consensus on an absolute definition. Issues that arise in the debate include the influence and attitudes of societies, cultural differences in child rearing, politics, and religious beliefs. In addition, there is a need to examine the factors involved in particular episodes, the context in which the episodes occurred, the opinion of the professionals who are describing or judging these episodes, the current knowledge of the long-term outcomes of particular behaviors to children, and the effectiveness of current interventions. However, definitions are important because they provide a general framework for policy setting, statutory and legal interventions, gathering statistical information, and an understanding of current and future research.

The UK Children Act (1) and the Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (2) (CAPTA) define a child as: "a person under the age of eighteen years." (In cases of sexual abuse, CAPTA refers to the age specified by the child protection law of the state in which the child resides.)

From: Clinical Forensic Medicine: A Physician's Guide, 2nd Edition Edited by: M. M. Stark © Humana Press Inc., Totowa, NJ

Working Together to Safeguard Children 1999 (3) describes the abuse and neglect of a child as: "Somebody inflicting harm or failing to act to prevent harm" and physical abuse as: "Hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning or scalding, drowning, suffocating or otherwise causing physical harm to a child including when a parent or carer feigns the symptoms of, or deliberately causes ill-health to a child whom they are looking after, termed Fabricated or Induced Illness (FII)."

In the United States, each state is responsible for providing its own definitions of child abuse and neglect within the civil and criminal codes, but the operational definition of physical abuse (CAPTA) (2) is as follows:

"Physical abuse is characterized by the infliction of physical injury as a result of punching, beating, kicking, biting, burning, shaking or otherwise harming a child. The parent or caretaker may not have intended to hurt the child; rather, the injury may have resulted from over-discipline or physical punishment."

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