Child Endangerment Laws in California

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For as bright and clever as some kids are, they still ultimately turn to adults for guidance most of the time. Kids rely on adults for food, shelter, and security, but sadly, they may not provide those things, and instead, child endangerment may occur.

Many of us shudder at the thought of placing a child in dangerous situations, but the reality is that not all adults are wired that way. Being vigilant and watching for any signs that a child may be in danger is important.

What Exactly Is Child Endangerment in the State of California?

According to the California Legislature, there are different ways to where the health and wellbeing of a child may be endangered.

First off, if the defendant in question “willfully causes or permits any child to suffer, or inflicts thereon unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering,” then that person violates California’s child endangerment laws. That will hold true regardless of whether or not the defendant was someone who had custody of the child.

What that means is that both relatives and those who are not related to the child can still be found guilty of child endangerment.

People will also be found guilty of violating California law if the physical pain or mental suffering they inflicted upon a child or allowed to happen results in him/her sustaining “great bodily harm” or dying.

Also, you should know that physical or mental harm does not necessarily need to befall the child for there to be an endangerment case. When someone puts a child in a position where he/she is harmed, they will find the adult responsible in violation of the state’s laws.

There are times when parents may say that their actions were necessary because they were disciplining their child. The court will look into that and determine if the actions committed were indeed appropriate disciplinary measures or if they went beyond and already veered into the territory of being dangerous to the child.

When Does a Charge Become a Felony?

The gravity of a particular accusation of child endangerment can depend on numerous factors. Those factors will determine whether they will charge someone with a misdemeanor or whether they receive a more serious felony charge.

There are several things that the prosecution can consider here. Prosecutors may look at the facts of the case and see what effects the actions of the suspect had on the child. They may also take into account the criminal history of the accused before deciding which charge to move forward with.

Arguably the most important consideration when it comes to child endangerment cases is whether or not the actions or the inaction of the defendant could have or did lead to “great bodily harm” or death.

Crucially, the child does not need to be seriously injured for them to elevate a case to a felony. The actions or inaction of the defendant resulting in the child being at risk for bodily injury or death is enough to warrant a felony charge on the suspect.

In so-called “wobbler” cases such as this, determining whether they should charge the suspect with a misdemeanor or a felony is important. Penalties vary greatly between those two possible charges. Exactly what those penalties are we will get into later in this article.

sad child

What Is “Unjustifiable Physical Pain or Mental Suffering?”

You probably noticed that endangerment cases involve “unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering” inflicted on the child. But, what exactly does it mean to inflict “unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering?”

The important word to hone in on is “unjustifiable.” They often use the word “unjustifiable” to describe something that is not necessary. One may even say they may consider excessive action as “unjustifiable.”

Let’s come up with examples to better illustrate these points.

In one scenario, a parent may scold a child for being disobedient. The parent in that scenario may give his/her child a stern lecture and perhaps an additional punishment in the form of grounding or restricted access to their gadgets.

The child’s friends may perceive that punishment to be excessive, but the reality is that it’s a fair punishment that can teach the young boy or girl a valuable lesson.

The punishment, in a word, is justified.

Now, let’s say there is a different parent who is also disciplining their child for disobedience. Instead of giving a stern lecture and restricting access to gadgets, the parent in this scenario decides that a more effective form of discipline would be to withhold meals from the child.

Withholding meals from a still growing child can be incredibly harmful.

Anyone who hears about that punishment would likely deem it to be excessive and unnecessary, meaning it can no longer be justified.

Parents are allowed to discipline their children in the way they see fit, but the law also has the right to step in if the punishments being handed down by parents are way too much for any child to bear.

What Is “Great Bodily Harm?”

We mentioned earlier that among the most important considerations for prosecutors when they are trying to determine whether they should pursue a misdemeanor, or a felony charge is the child being at risk for “great bodily harm” or even death.

Death is self-explanatory, but what is “great bodily harm”, and how can you tell if they crossed that line?

“Great bodily harm” is sometimes also referred to as “great bodily injury.” According to Merriam-Webster, a “great bodily injury” is one “suffered by the victim of a violent crime that causes a substantial risk of death, extended loss or impairment of a body part or function, or permanent disfigurement.”

Bruises can be indicative of bodily harm, but they will not regard them as symptoms of anything more serious. Broken bones, burns, and scratches to sensitive parts of the body, such as the eyes, maybe regarded differently. They can be indicators of great bodily harm.

Remember, though, that the child does not need to sustain any kind of serious injury for any parent or adult to be found guilty of felony child endangerment. Simply putting the child at risk for something like that is enough to warrant a guilty verdict in most cases.

How Can You Tell if Someone Is “Willfully” Committing Child Endangerment?

Now that we’ve defined key terms such as “unjustifiable” and “great bodily harm,” let’s focus on more important words that can have a significant impact on whether or not they can charge someone with child endangerment.

It is said in California law that child endangerment cases must involve adults “willfully” allowing a child to suffer from some kind of harm or even just be placed in a position for that to happen.

You don’t need to harm the child yourself or even intend to do so. However, if you did something knowing that it can harm your child because of it, you are indeed guilty of endangerment.

Another example will help shed more light on this matter.

For this example, let’s say that the kids down the street are bullying your kid. The bullying has gotten to the point where your son has returned home with bruises, and you’ve seen those bruises yourself.

One night, as you’re trying to quickly cook dinner before heading to work, you ask your child to buy something from the store knowing that his bullies are hanging out nearby and may cause trouble for him. Because you’re in a hurry, you still ask your child to buy the ingredients you need, but when he returns home, he’s got a busted nose courtesy of the bullies.

You may not have wanted them to bully your child, but you were still the one who willfully put him in a dangerous situation. The court may hold the bullies directly responsible for the injury, but you are also guilty of child endangerment.

As a parent, you were negligent in terms of watching over your child. That negligence has now resulted in physical and mental trauma that he may have a hard time recovering from.

When Does Child Endangerment Turn into a Manslaughter or Murder Case?

In the unfortunate event that an adult’s actions lead to the death of a child, there is a chance that he/she may also be tried for additional cases apart from child endangerment.

Child endangerment cases don’t always get tried as manslaughter or murder cases, and it is often up to the prosecutor to decide if pursuing the harsher penalties linked to those crimes is necessary.

Charges that may also be levied upon those found guilty of endangerment include involuntary manslaughter, voluntary manslaughter, and second-degree murder.

child endangerment penalties

What Are the Forms of Penalties?

The types of penalties a defendant must face will vary depending on whether they charge them with misdemeanor child endangerment or felony child endangerment.

Penalties for Misdemeanor Child Endangerment

For misdemeanor child endangerment, they may sentence a convicted person to up to six months in county jail. They may also order he/she to pay a fine that can be as expensive as $1,000.

As part of the sentence, they may put someone convicted of child endangerment on informal probation. However, because it is a child endangerment case, the minimum length of probation is forty-eight months.

Additional penalties may include a restraining order that prevents the defendant from approaching the child. He/she will also have to enter and complete an abuser’s treatment counseling program.

In addition, if the defendant was using drugs or alcohol at the time when he/she endangered the child, the judge may order him/her to abstain from using those substances throughout the forty-eight months of probation. To see if the defendant is complying with the conditions of the probation, he/she will need to submit to random drug testing.

Penalties for Felony Child Endangerment

Criminals convicted of felony child endangerment can expect to face harsh penalties because of their actions.

For starters, they will no longer be incarcerated in county jail. Instead, they can sentence them to time in state prison. At a minimum, their prison sentence will be two years, but it can go all the way up to six.

The fine also becomes larger. A defendant may need to pay a fine of $10,000 after being found guilty of child endangerment.

They can use forty-eight months of formal probation as a form of punishment for those accused.

Criminals who have committed felony child endangerment will get a strike on their record. That is important because additional strikes can lead to longer sentences.

A second strike for someone they previously found guilty will lead to a sentence twice as long for their crime.  If they add another strike to that criminal’s record, they may receive a sentence of twenty-five years to life in state prison.

The state of California clearly has no tolerance for those who would willfully endanger children, as evidenced by the penalties attached to their laws. Now, if you ever find yourself wrongfully accused, you can fight to avoid those harsh penalties.

How Do You Fight against Accusations?

To show that you are not guilty of child endangerment, you can attempt to prove that you were not willfully negligent in terms of caring for your child.

After being in a car accident, the police may think that you did not strap your child into their safety seat, but in reality, it was the safety seat that malfunctioned. The onus is now on you to show that you were not at fault in that scenario.

You can also avoid those penalties by proving that someone else was responsible for endangering your child or that the form of discipline you provided was indeed reasonable.

Proving your innocence will not be an easy task, but you can do it, especially if you work with the lawyers at Batta Fulkerson. Get in touch with them ASAP if you fear they are targeting you with a false or mistaken accusation of child endangerment. Their legal expertise will surely help you out in a tough spot.