What Is The Legal Definition Of “Abuse?”

What do you think when you hear the word “abuse” used in a sentence? Probably violence or neglect. You might think primarily of vulnerable children or animals whose parents or owners fail to properly take care of them. But even adults can suffer abuse. Domestic violence is a common occurrence in the United States. The definition of abuse is a varied one, legally, and spans many different practice areas.

Cornell University defines “abuse” as “generally: physically, sexually, or mentally injuring a person…Child abuse: physically sexually, or mentally injuring a child either with intent or through neglect…Substance abuse: excessively using or misusing a legal or illegal substance.”

The word can even be used in Chapter 7 bankruptcy filings! Everyone living in the United States heard the word uttered over and over during Donald Trump’s impeachment trials: “abuse of power.”

Here are a few of the relevant laws.

Child sexual abuse occurs when a person — usually an adult — has any kind of sexual activity with a minor. The age of consent varies by state, and is set at 16, 17, or 18 years old. Children below this threshold cannot legally consent to sexual activity. Child sexual abuse occurs when an adult fondles or touches a minor, speaks obscenely to a minor, exposes themselves to a minor, produces naked images of a minor, trafficks a minor, etc.

An abuse of power is not always legally defined. For example, the United States Senate could have found former President Donald Trump guilty on charges of abuse of power when articles of impeachment were introduced (they failed to do so), and it need not have occurred because Trump committed a literal crime. Abuse of power occurs when a public official loses the public’s trust, engages in corrupt activity, or commissions an unlawful act. 

Most states have numerous animal abuse laws on the books. In Virginia, for example, legal code states that “It is unlawful for any person to kill a domestic dog or cat for the purpose of obtaining the hide, fur or pelt of the dog or cat.” But this is only one law. Others generally ban animal cruelty. Most states allow animals to be killed when they become a danger to others.

Mental or emotional abuse is one of the least understood. According to the Stop Abuse Campaign, an “ACE study defines emotional abuse as a parent or other adult in the household often swearing at you, insulting you, putting you down, humiliating you, or acting in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt. It’s important to notice the word ‘often’ here; a single instance of parental bad behavior is not enough to cause a lifetime of trauma for children.”

And that’s the purpose of most abuse laws — to prevent long-term trauma, especially for vulnerable sections of the population. If you’re not sure about your state’s abuse laws, you can easily search for them online or make inquiries to a personal injury or sexual abuse attorney.