It is against the law to sexually abuse a child. It is a crime and, if perpetrators are convicted, results in incarceration. However, most children do not tell, and many children recant after telling. If enough evidence is not gathered, if the child is not convincing, if law enforcement and prosecutors do not think they can get a conviction, either the case does not go to court or it is plead down to a lesser charge - with lesser consequences. 

Child sexual abuse has been designated a crime since 1973 in United States federal law. It is illegal in every state. States will designate the specifics of the law, and these vary; however, certain aspects of the laws are common to all states. One of those commonalities is that minor children are unable to give consent. Therefore, regardless of the "consent" of the child, an adult who engages in sexual activity with a child is guilty of child sexual abuse. See U.S. Codes: Child Sexual Abuse.

Penalties for child sexual abuse also vary in different states. Perpetrators will be charged with specific offenses that carry penalties. These penalties include imprisonment, court fines, registration as a sex offender, and probation and parole restrictions. Perpetrators may also be tried in civil suits, and these penalties include liability for damages, injunctions, and involuntary commitment. If the perpetrators is related to his victim, he may lose custody or parental rights. Repeat offenders are supposed to receive increased penalties because they are at higher risk of victimizing multiple victims. See Prevent-Abuse-Now: Search State Laws.

Specific laws apply to child sexual abuse that occurs within families. Family courts usually deal with these cases, although the same case may be tried in both family and criminal court. Specific laws are written about incest, the sexual abuse of a family member. In many states, the perpetrator is prosecuted for incest rather than child sexual abuse. However, if the perpetrator is a relative, he may receive a lesser penalty than if he were tried in criminal court for child sexual abuse. Some states have changed their laws to close this loophole.

International laws are also written to protect children from sexual exploitation. These laws apply to: coercion to engage in sexual activity, child prostitution, and production of pornography.

Many professionals are designated as mandatory reporters. These individuals are constrained by law to report abuse if they receive a report or have cause to suspect abuse is occurring. See Who Must Report.   

A prevalent problem in the United States is that sexual abuse cases, if reported, are not prosecuted. Victims must present with evidence that sexual abuse occurred. If the victim is a small child, unable to articulate the abuse, physical evidence must document that abuse has occurred, and evidence must be undisputable. In almost all cases of child sexual abuse, physicians are unable to say that the only cause for physical evidence is sexual abuse. Because many types of sexual abuse are not penetrative, and because penetration often does not leave evidence, the child must be believed. When the child is unable to articulate abuse, other signs of sexual abuse must be noted. The child therapist, using play therapy techniques, is often able to verify behaviors and child characteristics usually found in victims.

When the child's disclosure is inconsistent,  investigators are unwilling to believe the child's statement, particularly if the perpetrator denies the abuse and presents well. If a parent custody case is in process, both law enforcement and social services are often unwilling to become involved. They, instead, attribute the allegations to marital conflict and may consider the child's report a fabrication, fostered by the mother (if the father is the alleged perpetrator). In these cases, the child's safety should be the primary focus. 


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