Understanding Child Abuse and Neglect

Wisconsin's child welfare system aims to protect children who have been abused, neglected or threatened with abuse or neglect; however, what is considered child maltreatment can be a difficult concept to grasp and even more difficult to identify in real life. For information on how Wisconsin defines child abuse and neglect, select the different types of maltreatment below.

If you are concerned about potential child abuse or neglect, you may consider making a report to Child Protective Services (CPS). For more information on how and when to make a report, please visit the CPS Access page.

Physical Abuse

In Wisconsin, physical abuse can be summarized as causing serious physical harm and injury by other than accidental means. The full statutory definition can be found in Wis Ch. 48.02(1)(a).

Some injuries are a normal part of childhood. Bruises, scrapes and sometimes even broken bones can be the result of children taking part in activities that are expected for their age, like learning to walk, riding a bike or playing sports.

The previously mentioned injuries to children may raise concern for physical abuse when they are unlikely for the child's age and ability, located on an unusual place on the body and happen with frequency. Injuries resulting from physical abuse are severe, caused by another person and not an accident.


In Wisconsin, neglect can be summarized as seriously endangering the physical health of the child by not providing necessary care, food, clothing, shelter, medical or dental care or supervision for reasons other than poverty. The full statutory definition can be found in Wis Ch. 48.02(12g).

Neglect is the most common type of alleged maltreatment in Wisconsin, and often it can feel the most unclear. Neglect is frequently misidentified when complex family dynamics like substance use, domestic violence and homelessness are present. Any of these conditions alone do not automatically mean that a child is being neglected, but in combination with other factors, can put a child at an increased risk for neglect.

If the concern could be explained by a difference in parenting styles (perhaps differences related to hygiene, food choices, youth supervision or disciplinary practices), it is possible that the concern stems from poverty, as opposed to neglect.

Sexual Abuse

In Wisconsin, sexual abuse can be summarized as sexual intercourse or sexual touching of a child, forced viewing of sexual activity, child sex trafficking or sexual exploitation. The full statutory definition can be found in Wis Ch. 48.02(1)(b)-(f).

Sexual behaviors in children range from normal to very concerning and are highly dependent on the child's age and ability.

No child under the age of 15 can consent to sexual contact or intercourse in Wisconsin.

Emotional Abuse

In Wisconsin, emotional abuse can be summarized as serious harm to a child's psychological or intellectual functioning for which the parents have not provided the needed treatment. The full statutory definition can be found in Wis Ch. 48.02(1)(gm).

Emotional abuse in children can be observed through behavior, emotional response or mental functioning that is outside the normal range for the child's age and stage of development. 

Serious harm to the child's psychological functioning is usually indicated by a licensed mental health professional.