What Is Your Experience In Handling Child Abuse Cases?

I was a court-appointed Guardian ad Litem (“GAL”) (a child-protection attorney representing the children themselves) for about eight years. I served in a government agency called the Utah Office of Guardian Ad-Litem, which are essentially child protection attorneys. 100% of my very large caseload during those years was representing children where abuse or neglect was a significant element in the case. When I left the GAL’s and established my own practice, my reputation for effectively dealing with child abuse cases followed me. Quite a large percentage of my current cases also deal with similar allegations.

I currently represent (a) children where abuse or neglect is alleged as a Private Guardian ad Litem (“PGAL”), (b) parties who have concerns that the other side has abused or neglected the children, (c) parties who are being accused of abuse or neglect.

What Is Considered As Physical Child Abuse Under Utah Law?

A court has considerable discretion in determining what physical abuse is, and they are not bound by a specific definition. But, there is a specific definition in the juvenile court code that defines abuse as “non-accidental harm of a child, sexual exploitation, or sexual abuse.” Reasonable discipline of a child will not constitute abuse. Neither will self-defense or defense of others from a child. The word “harm” is defined as physical, emotional, development injury or damage, or sexual abuse or exploitation. The court can consider all kinds of factors in determining whether physical abuse has occurred. These factors can include whether the acts were reasonable discipline, evidence of any bruises, contusions, or abrasions. The court can consider the need for corporal punishment, the relationship between that need and the actual amount of punishment administered, and the extent of the injury.

The courts will consider whether the punishment was a good faith effort to maintain discipline, or if it was maliciously or sadistically used to cause harm. Here, the court is looking at whether the punishment was unusually cruel, such as beatings with a belt or a paddle or a hose or other objects. In the State of Utah, hitting a child with an object is almost always going to be considered abuse. Whether evidence of any verbal threats or verbal abuse that occurred during the incident, and whether the incident was isolated or was part of a continuing pattern or a progression of mistreatment, will also be considered. It’s important to note that the lack of a bruise does not mean there wasn’t abuse. The court can infer abuse from any number of facts.

Does The Abuse Have To Be Intentional For It To Have Legally Occurred?

Abuse does not have to be intentional for it to have legally occurred. Abuse can be reckless. The perpetrator does not have to intend that abuse occurred. The perpetrator only has to intend to have taken the action that resulted in the abuse. For example, if a person slaps a child, they do not have to intend that the slap be of sufficient force to cause a bruise. They only have to intend the slap. If a bruise did occur, if the slap is of sufficient force, or if the circumstances of the slap suggest abusiveness, the perpetrator’s lack of intent to cause that degree of harm becomes less relevant. By way of contrast, if a child surprises a parent who has an automatic knee-jerk reaction and waves their arms in surprise accidentally hitting the child in the face with their elbow, that is accidental harm, even if it causes injury. The court will distinguish intent as being either accidental or non-accidental. But the perpetrator does not have to intend for the act to rise to the level of abuse. They only have to intend the act.

Can The Accused Parent Have Contact With The Child During A Pending Case?

Not only is it possible, it’s also likely that the parent will have some kind of contact with the child during the case. But if the court has made a determination that the child was likely abused, that parent’s contact may be supervised until the parents has received the necessary treatment, evaluations, and remedies necessary to prevent the likelihood of a reoccurrence. Because the relationship between the child and the parent, even if the parent has been abusive, is still considered important, the court will usually begin with the assumption that that relationship should be preserved and nourished.

This is unless the abuse was so severe that contact with the child at any point in time between the child and the perpetrator would be harmful to the child on a long-term basis. If the court determines that, the termination of the perpetrator’s parental rights is warranted. Those cases will be the minority, however. Usually there will be a plan put in place by the court to work the perpetrator out of supervision so long as they engage in the remedial steps necessary to prevent a reoccurrence, and to help repair the relationship between the child and the parent.

For more information on Child Abuse Cases In Utah, an initial consultation is your next best step. Contact Us online or call us to arrange a consultation at (801) 616-3301 today.

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*Child Welfare Law Specialist Nat’l Assoc. of Counsel for Children