What Is a Dependent Child?

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  • Written By: Renee Booker
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 05 March 2020
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Many jurisdictions around the world have laws against abuse or neglect of a dependent child. Although the definition of a dependent child may vary, it usually refers to a child under the age of 18 who is under the legal care of an adult parent or caregiver. Although a biological parent is often legally responsible for a dependent child, other people such as a legal guardian, foster parent, or state agency may also be held legally accountable for a dependent child.

Within the United States, the Federal Child Abuse and Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) sets forth the minimum standards that individual states must use when implementing legislation regarding child abuse and neglect. According to CAPTA, "Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm" is considered child abuse or neglect. When a caregiver is accused of abuse or neglect of a dependent child, he or she may face criminal charges or may be required to appear before a juvenile court judge to determine whether or not the child may remain in the caregiver's custody, or both.


In most states, when an allegation of abuse or neglect is made, an investigator from the county child protective services will contact the caregiver in an attempt to determine whether the allegations are substantiated. In most cases, the investigator may do one of three things upon making contact: close the investigation after determining that the allegations are unfounded; refer the case for further review, but allow the child to remain in the home; or remove the child from the home and refer the case for further legal action. Investigators generally have the legal authority, with the help of local law enforcement, if necessary, to forcefully remove a child if they believe it is warranted.

When a child is removed from the home, he or she is placed with a family member, if possible, in most cases. If a family placement is not possible, then the child will be placed in foster care while the case is pending. In most states, state law requires the juvenile court to work toward family reunification, meaning that the court system must offer services to the family in an effort to reunite the dependent child with his or her parent. When the court system has exhausted all the services and resources at its disposal, then the court will terminate the parental rights of the parent and the child will be placed for adoption.

Aside from the juvenile court process that determines whether or not a dependent child may remain in the custody of a parent, a parent or other caregiver can also face criminal charges for abuse or neglect of a dependent. In most states, abuse or neglect of a dependent is a felony. Depending on the type and severity of the abuse or neglect, a parent or caregiver can face a lengthy prison sentence if convicted of abusing or neglecting a dependent child.


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