Child Abuse by the “Good” Parent

But I Didn’t Do Anything!

There is a common but sometimes overlooked problem when children are abused.  Adults who are not directly responsible for injuries to their baby or child, but allow someone else to injure them, are permitting the abuse which has the same effect on the child. The law demands someone protect the child if the other parent won’t.  But if no one notifies Child Protective Services, the child might not get the protection he or she deserves. A scenario I’ve seen more than a few times in my practice is the parent who is faced with an abusive co-parent who suffers from substance abuse. The sober parent sees himself or herself as the “good parent” who guards or protects the child from the “bad” parent.  Sadly, that is not the case at all.   

But I’m the Good Parent Who is Always There

First, you cannot always be there to “supervise” the other parent or adult.  There are inevitably times you must leave the home or leave the other adult with your child.  Constant protection and surveillance is unrealistic, especially when there is turbulence between the co-parents or other adults who are in the home or spend time around your child. In fact, when a romantic relationship between parents ends and they separate, the other parent might threaten to take the child as a way to get back at you, even when the child does not have a close relationship with him or her.  The other parent might do so while driving drunk or under the influence of controlled substances.  What if he or she is angry and starts throwing things at your child or at you while the child is watching?  Or passed out and doesn’t hear the baby crying or the fire alarm?  Or crying while waiving a weapon and making threats to hurt you and/or commit suicide?

Second, a parent who is intoxicated or impaired can be moody and easily agitated, which can lead to physical assaults.  Time after time I see domestic violence cases filed after a baby is violently snatched from the arms of the “good” parent and used as a pawn to control her or him or to prevent the other parent from fleeing the home. As the child hears all sorts of chaos, screaming and cursing, the parent (and child) may be shoved, pushed, kicked or held against his or her will.  Think about it: to your baby or child, it is meaningless whether or not you were the “good” parent or the bad parent that day.

Stop the Cycle

Parents forget the child sees the behavior modeled by both of them. Aside from teaching children to either become abusive, or tolerate an abusive partner when they grow up, allowing this type of environment is dangerous.  It is not uncommon for children and teens to jump into the line of fire when they try to help the parent or sibling who is being abused in front of them.  Children and teens are not equipped to handle this sort of trauma. Although there are some technical legal distinctions, child abuse is a form of domestic violence. Your kids are dependent on you for protection. It can be hard to break up with the other parent because you feel you are giving up security or the marriage but it is not a secure situation if you do nothing. In fact, the longer a victim stays with the abuser, the more chance the danger will grow. Victims of violence think they will miss the marriage or relationship with the other parent.  However, it is sometimes the case that they miss the relationship they wish they had, not the relationship they are somehow managing to endure every day.

The Bottom Line

Parents are sometimes reluctant to call 911 when there is violence in the home.  They should always call 911 when any violence occurs. Allowing the other parent or another adult to abuse or neglect your child just because they live with you is not okay. Additionally, it creates potential legal liability to you. Failing to remove your child from an abusive environment means Child Protective Services might do it for you because you knew about it and allowed it to happen.  Or, it might mean you try to help your child after it is too late and the damage cannot be undone. There are many complex issues surrounding violent family relationships. If you are facing family violence, consult with a family law attorney immediately about how to safely remove yourself and your child from an abusive environment.


Resources in North Carolina (Victim Information Sheet) Or search online for form AOC-CV-323

Personalized Domestic Violence Safety Plan (checklist of things to do when facing violence in a relationship) from NC Dept. of Social Services. Or search online for form DSS-5233

Real Crisis Intervention in Greenville offers counseling, advocacy, information and referrals.

Center for Family Violence Prevention in Pitt County

Laws change. This article is current as of 2023.

Domestic Violence Protective Orders in North Carolina

People with certain personal relationships may seek domestic violence protective orders (DVPOs). These include household members, parents of a child in common, spouses and former spouses, and others. DVPOs give law enforcement the ability to arrest a defendant if they have probable cause to believe he or she violated the order. Intentionally making a false statement to law enforcement that there is a DVPO when there isn’t one is a crime.

What Counts as Domestic Violence?

North Carolina law specifies three types of domestic violence which are summarized here. One is intentionally causing (or attempting to cause) bodily injury. Another is committing rape and/or sexual assault. The third type of domestic violence is placing a person in fear of imminent serious bodily injury, or continued harassment. As used here, harassment means it reaches a level so bad that it inflicts substantial emotional distress. This definition applies not only the victim, but also the victim’s family or household in some circumstances. Criminal statutes detail the harassment as conduct that is “directed at a specific person that torments, terrorizes, or terrifies that person and that serves no legitimate purpose.” NC Gen. Stat. §14-277.3A.

What is a DVPO?

A domestic violence protective order is awarded by a judge to protect a victim by prohibiting the defendant from assaulting, threatening, abusing, following, harassing (by telephone, visiting the home or workplace, or other means), or interfering with the victim and/or children who live with the victim. DVPOs can also order a defendant to stay away from the victim’s residence, school, place of employment and anywhere else that would be applicable. These are civil cases, not criminal in nature although the violation of a DVPO is a crime. As a separate matter, a defendant might also face criminal charges for assault on a female, battery, interference with a 911 call, child abuse or other charges.

Are There Other Remedies?

DVPOs can also require the defendant to attend and complete an abuser treatment program or prohibit him or her from purchasing a firearm for a period of time. The court has the authority to award temporary possession of personal property, including a family pet. An emergency DVPO might be awarded before the defendant has the opportunity to appear in court.

If a child is exposed to a substantial risk of physical or emotional injury, or sexual abuse, the court might award emergency temporary child custody. The court may require the defendant stay away from the child, to return the child to the other parent, or prohibit him or her from removing a child from someone’s care. The office of the NC Attorney General offers an Address Confidentiality Program, which is a mail forwarding program that adds another layer to the protections of domestic violence victims.

Help and Resources:

Resources in North Carolina (Victim Information Sheet) Or search online for form AOC-CV-323

Personalized Domestic Violence Safety Plan (checklist of things to do when facing violence in a relationship) from NC Dept. of Social Services. Or search online for form DSS-5233

Real Crisis Intervention in Greenville offers counseling, advocacy, information and referrals.

Laws change. This article is current as of 2023.

Child Abuse and Neglect in North Carolina

By North Carolina statute, anyone who has reason to believe a child is being abused must make a report to CPS (Child Protective Services).  This also applies to suspected neglect or dependency upon the state when a child is abandoned.  The identity of a person who reports suspected child abuse is sealed by the State so that the parent or caretaker of the child will not know who made the report to CPS.  As long as you have a good faith basis to report child abuse, you do not have any legal liability if CPS decides no abuse has occurred. The name of the person reporting is strictly confidential.

The policy of the law is to trigger an investigation into a child’s circumstances so CPS can prevent potential harm to the child, or remove the child from an abusive environment. People sometimes hesitate to report suspected abuse because they feel the parent will be punished.  Reporting doesn’t always result in a finding that abuse or neglect has occurred.  Upon receiving a report of suspected abuse, there is an investigation by social workers and/or other trained and licensed professionals. If the CPS investigation finds evidence there is abuse or neglect, a lawsuit may be filed and the parent will usually be entitled to an appointed attorney to represent him or her in the case. Parents are then given access to resources that give them tools for dealing with their inclination to abuse their child. Punishment is not the goal in these civil (non-criminal) courts. The constitutional rights of parents must be respected, just as they are in criminal cases.

What Counts as Child Abuse?

In a perfect world, there would be a simple definition for child abuse.  But we live in an imperfect world where it is necessary to include lots of examples of abuse as we try to define it. Taken together, this patchwork of situations creates the legal definition of child abuse in our state.  It gives you a flavor of the sort of thing you must report. Fortunately, you don’t have to figure all of that out because it is the task of the NC Department of Social Services through CPS to decide exactly what fits into the definition of child abuse or neglect. All you have to do is err on the side of caution and call CPS when you see abusive behavior or evidence that indicates a child is in danger. An abused child is one whose parent, guardian, custodian, or caretaker:

  • Inflicts serious physical injury by other than accidental means.  This includes an adult allowing someone else to inflict injury on the child;
  • Creates a substantial risk of serious physical injury to the child by other than accidental means (or allows someone else to create that risk);
  • Uses or allows . . .  cruel or grossly inappropriate procedures or cruel or grossly inappropriate devices to modify behavior;
  • Commits, permits, or encourages the commission of various sexual and obscenity offenses;
  • Creates (or allows to be created) serious emotional damage to the juvenile shown by the child’s severe anxiety, depression, withdrawal, or aggressive behavior toward himself or others; or
  • Encourages, directs, or approves of delinquent acts involving moral turpitude committed by the child.

What are the Signs of Child Abuse?

For the signs of suspected abuse, see the list on the NC Department of Social Services web site. If you suspect a child is being abused in Pitt County, call 252-902-1110 during the day, and 252-830-4141 after hours. There is also information about the basics of reporting suspected abuse in NC, offered by the TEDI Bear Children’s Advocacy Center.