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Verbal Abuse

Verbal Abuse

Recently, a video appeared in the national media showing a toddler demonstrating some disturbing behavior.  In the clip, adults verbally antagonized and bated this baby boy.  The little one, looking so innocent standing there in a diaper, told off the adults and even gave them the finger.  All the while, the supposedly mature adults were laughing in the background.  As a further sign of questionable judgment, they then posted the video on social media.  The Nebraska case got national attention when the Omaha Police Union reposted the video as an example of the “thug” culture the police had to deal with on a daily basis.  Not surprisingly, many groups took offense to the Union’s response.  

Although their fight made for great television, it wasn’t really the point.  Why fight about words and who said what when Child Protective Services removed a baby and three other children from their home?  The officials sited safety reasons for taking the children, but there was no doubt the verbal and mental abuse played a factor.  The question for many people was how big a factor?  In this case, it seemed pretty horrific, but how far is too far?  Could this happen to anyone? 

Now for a moment, picture being in the grocery store after a truly terrible day at work.  Everything is going downhill; and to make matters worse, your 12 year old is complaining about how hard life is as a preteen.  That quickly morphs into a diatribe about how you don’t give her everything her friends have.  After one too many whiney comments, you literally snap for a moment.  You yell at her in front of whoever might be in your vicinity.  You call her a spoiled, little princess, and that she’s lucky you can still stand to be around her!  In fact, you say if she doesn’t like what you can provide, she can get the **** out!  Oh crap.  Feeling mortified as your daughter starts sobbing, you look to see a crowd gathered to witness the entire debacle like sharks at a feeding frenzy.  To make matters worse, half of them have their phones out recording it, and you’re sure you’ll be a YouTube sensation by morning.  

This might seem a little extreme, but who among us has never lost his or her temper.  In this day and age, everyone has cameras to document our worst moments.  Could something like this be reported and would CPS get involved?  Could your child really be taken away?  It all seems so subjective.

The story of the boy in Nebraska is certainly a disturbing one.  The child was removed from his mother’s care partially due to the behavior of the adults in the house towards the child.  The adults weren’t physically abusing or neglecting the child.  But were their actions still abuse?  If so, what would be done in Virginia in a case like this?

Virginia defines child abuse as, among other things, physical or mental injury to a child by other than accidental means.  While mental abuse is not a common form of abuse investigated by Child Protective Services in Virginia (making up approximately 3% of investigations) it does exist.  So does the behavior here, aside from what other physical factors were present in the home, qualify as child abuse in Virginia?  The focus would be on whether the behavior exhibited by the adults in the Nebraska case would cause “mental injury”.  In Virginia, mental injury is “harm to a child’s psychological or emotional health or development” where “the child demonstrates or may demonstrate psychological or emotional dysfunction”.

In the Nebraska case, it is doubtful that the evidence on the video alone would be enough to qualify as mental abuse.  In order for a CPS worker in Virginia to find that the child in the Nebraska video suffered mental abuse, there would have to be a diagnosed mental health injury or “dysfunction” caused by the action.  However, if the child’s caretakers engaged in consistent and repeated behavior of this kind and a mental health professional could say that the behavior caused mental injury, CPS could find mental abuse and, if necessary to protect the child, could take the child from the home.

In the case of the parent at the grocery store, such an isolated incident would not likely result in a finding of abuse unless there was a pattern of behavior that resulted in mental injury to the child.  Everyone gets mad at times and can say or do something that they wish they could take back, but an occasional outburst is unlikely to result in mental injury.  In this case, the fact that the child was older would also indicate that there is less likely to be mental abuse as an older child can generally understand an outburst better than a younger child.  However, a viral video of the kind of outburst described here might result in a report of child abuse and contact from a CPS worker.  If that were to happen, it would be very important for the person accused to talk to an attorney before speaking to CPS.  An attorney can help a family deal with a CPS investigation and protect the family from any damaging misunderstandings.

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