Child Abandonment

Child abandonment occurs when a parent, guardian, or person in charge of a child either deserts a child or fails to provide the necessary care for the child's well-being. 

Abandonment by desertion may be without any regard for the child's physical health, safety, or welfare and with the intention of wholly abandoning the child. Abandonment by failing a duty of care usually involves some amount of child neglect.

Abandoning a child typically involves desertion of a child. This may involve leaving a child at a stranger's doorstep when no one is home. It may also occur when a parent leaves a child with a responsible adult for a long period of time and has no contact with the child. 

Sometimes, abandonment can materialize through an extreme case of emotional abandonment. In such a case, a parent may have limited contact but offer no emotional support to the child. This could occur from work demands or unhealthy addictions that interfere with parenting time. Unfortunately, abandoned children who do not get their needs met often grow up with low self-esteem, emotional dependency, helplessness, and other issues.

A person charged with the criminal offense of child abandonment may face felony or misdemeanor penalties, including jail time and other consequences.

What Constitutes the Crime of Child Abandonment?

The term "child abandonment" is broadly categorized. It may describe criminal charges the state pursues in the criminal justice system. It may also implicate areas of child welfare and family law related to child custody and visitation rights.

The crime of child abandonment will vary by name among the states. For example, in Ohio, most crimes related to abandonment of a child and abuse and neglect fall under the state crimes of "nonsupport" and "endangering children."

Evidence of child abandonment may first require proof that the offender is a parent, legal guardian, or other person or family member acting in loco parentis (in place of a parent), that has a duty of care to the child. It may then include any of the following conduct:

  • Leaving an infant on a doorstep, at a trash dumpster, or in other public or private places
  • Leaving a child home alone in a manner that caused a substantial risk of health or safety to the child
  • Leaving a child with another person for a long period of time without providing funds for the child's care 
  • Refusing to provide for the child's support, such as basic needs, medical services, or supervision

Where a state child abandonment law also includes elements of child abuse and neglect, it may include these additional provisions:

  • Engaging in abuse or torture of the child
  • Engaging in excessive discipline of a child that presents a substantial risk of serious physical harm
  • Operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs with the child in the vehicle
  • Engaging in or exposing the child to illegal drug use or drug offenses
  • Engaging the child in sexually-oriented offenses

Given the wide range of behaviors, law enforcement may charge the crime of child abandonment as a felony or a misdemeanor based on the circumstances.

Child Abandonment Laws

There is a wide variance in child abandonment from state to state. Many state laws may begin at the misdemeanor level and rise to a felony crime based on the risk of harm or actual harm caused to the child.

Leaving a child home alone under circumstances where they are not physically harmed may be classified as a misdemeanor. Situations where a parent or guardian intentionally abandons a child may rise to a felony, especially with an infant or young child. For example, in Georgia, the state may charge "reckless abandonment of a child" when a caregiver of a child under the age of one—such as a parent, guardian, or another person—abandons the child, and it results in the child's death. This offense exposes an offender to a prison term of 10 to 25 years.

Most child abandonment cases happen when a parent or legal guardian acts (or fails to act) in a way that risks harm to the child's mental or physical health. It can include:

  • Leaving a young child unsupervised when there is an unreasonable risk of harm
  • Failing to communicate with the child or caregiver for a significant period of time

To many, desertion of a child implies physical abandonment. However, a parent can maintain contact and still fail to provide for the child's basic needs. In some states, there may be a specific statute on nonsupport of dependents that could be a misdemeanor or felony based on the facts of the case.

Mandatory Reporting Laws

Because abandoning a child is considered child abuse or neglect in most states, certain persons designated as "mandatory reporters" may be required to report known or suspected cases to law enforcement or child protective services. You can check your state's child abuse laws to see if you qualify as a mandatory reporter. You can also seek legal help if you are unsure of your responsibilities.

Safe Haven Law Exception

Most jurisdictions have exceptions to child abandonment in the form of Safe Haven laws. Safe Haven laws allow mothers to safely abandon their newborn infants in safe locations where the child can obtain prompt medical care and other help. These locations can include churches, hospitals, and fire stations.

Mothers can do so without fear of being charged with the crime of child abandonment.

Leaving a Child at Home Alone

While it's necessary in some instances to leave a child at home alone, some states offer age guidelines to help parents avoid abandonment or endangerment charges. The decision to file charges in these cases will often depend on a number of factors, including:

  • The age of the child
  • The duration of time the child was left without adult supervision
  • Whether any harm occurred to the child, others, or property
  • Any economic hardship or illness of the parent or guardian

Read tips on leaving a child home alone to understand better how to fulfill your obligations.

Child Abandonment Penalties and Punishment

The offense of criminal child abandonment may bring different degrees of penalties based on state law. Sentencing may include:

  • Incarceration
  • Fines
  • Probation
  • Completion of parenting courses
  • "No contact" provisions related to the child

Criminal convictions in this area can also lead to actions in family court. The other parent or an interested family member may file a motion to modify custody or parenting time. In cases of abuse or neglect, the Department of Child Protective Services may file for temporary custody. In extreme cases, a parent may face termination of parental rights.

How Can You Protect Yourself and Your Loved Ones? Call a Defense Attorney Today

Some cases of abandonment aren't always clear, and can fall into a gray area of the law. If you're facing child abandonment charges, you should consider talking with a criminal defense lawyer. Convictions related to child abandonment, abuse, or neglect may affect your ability to see your child. If you have concerns about penalties or consequences in family court, get legal advice. You can start getting answers by contacting an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area.

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