Is Emotional Abuse the Same as Mental Abuse?

There is much to be said about the language involved in our laws.

Language is a necessity to communicate precisely what the laws are. Precise language helps establish clear, distinct parameters—by which everyone subject to the law must adhere, even if those parameters are based on semantics. It is the language of a law that lets us know which conduct we are allowed to engage in, and which conduct is impermissible.

For instance, if a criminal accusation is going to hold any weight, the evidence of the crime must meet the specifications as to how the crime is defined in the written law. For instance, there is a difference between burglaries and robberies. Yes, both are similar crimes and in fall within the same category of crimes but come with differing penal guidelines and definitions.

More relevant to the category of crime called child abuse, and to the kind of work we do at this firm, there is confusion between emotional and mental abuse. Both sound like they're mostly the same, because the words “emotional” and “mental” are related, but when breaking down the specifics of how they are defined and treated in the relevant statutes, the two are different.

Knowing the difference between mental abuse and so-called emotional abuse is crucial to overcoming the allegation.

Emotional Damage is a Legal Gray Area

In California’s criminal code, there is no crime described in the written statutes as “emotional abuse.” Instead, California's Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act (CANRA), which is part of California’s criminal code, only refers to "emotional damage."

This can be reported by any mandated reporter who suspects that a child has suffered, or is at severe risk of suffering considerable emotional damage. Still, the statute does not refer to this as a crime. One cannot be prosecuted in criminal courts for subjecting a child to “emotional damage” as defined in the CANRA. In fact, a person who is required to report suspected child abuse is not even required to report serious emotional damage. Even if they notice warning signs that a child is suffering serious emotional damage, it's still not necessary that a mandated reporter make a report.

Why are mandated reporters not required to report it? Because serious emotional damage does not fall under the umbrella of child abuse and neglect in California.

The term used by CANRA is "serious" emotional damage.

So, what constitutes "serious" damage?

According to the CANRA, there are specific behaviors that demonstrate “serious emotional damage,” such as:

  • Severe anxiety
  • Depression
  • Withdrawn behavior
  • Untoward aggressive behavior towards self or other

Now, this does not mean if child protective services has deemed that you caused a child to suffer emotional damage, that you won't end up on the Child Abuse Central Index. You may likely be put on the CACI. It does mean, though, that we will have an argument to have your name removed from the CACI.

Also, despite the fact that causing a child to suffer “serious emotional damage” is not in a crime in California, it’s still possible that it could be the cause of child protective services removing your child from your custody.

As such, especially since these accusations are false, you'll want to do everything in your power to disprove them.

What is Mental Abuse of a Child?

In very simple, abbreviated terms, a person commits mental abuse of a child if, while a child is in his care, he willfully inflicts on a child (or permits the child to suffer) unjustifiable mental suffering.

In contrast to the way the statute treats “serious emotional damage,” California’s criminal code does establish that it is a crime to inflict on a child "unjustifiable mental suffering."

It is similar, if not the same, as a form of abuse called child endangerment. In fact, the language of the statute defining mental abuse mirrors the language used to define child endangerment.

The statute does explicitly authorize child protective services agencies to put people on the CACI for mental abuse.

Serious Emotional Damage and Unjustifiable Mental Suffering Shouldn't Be Conflated

Drawing a strict line in the sand between one's emotions and mental state is still ambiguous and perhaps impossible. Undoubtedly, the two are related to one another. As such, it’s understandable that investigators who are inadequately trained would confuse both terms in the statute.

It’s hard to say whether this is an oversight by the legislature, whether or it’s been done for a reason.

However, whether it was a purposeful legislative distinction is irrelevant—because the two forms of harm exist separately in California law.

The Importance of Semantics

How these laws differ can play a vital role in your defense. Having a lawyer who has a firm grasps of each definition will help you fight what you're up against and help you defend yourself against false allegations.