Defending against a child abuse charge can be difficult, especially as it may involve the testimony of a child. Media attention directed at child abuse offenders appropriately brings the issue of child abuse out in the open. It can raise public awareness and encourage people to take action to benefit victims of child abuse and child neglect. For those accused of such crimes, it may seem impossible to respond to the harsh presumptions that come with a child abuse allegation. While child abuse laws aim to protect children, the justice system is also set up to vindicate those who are wrongfully accused.
Of course, when someone gets charged with child abuse or neglect, they face the possibility of conviction. This can lead to a jail or prison sentence. They will discuss any legal defense or plea negotiations with a criminal defense lawyer. A criminal conviction may also lead to changes in child custody rights. This article will review common child abuse defenses that a person may use when facing allegations of child abuse or neglect.
The goal of the criminal justice system includes seeking the truth and providing a just outcome. As a result, a common defense to child abuse charges is to claim that the allegations are not true. False allegations of child abuse may be more common than most people think. They can arise in dysfunctional families or between parents who have a difficult child custody battle. Where the evidence backs them up, a parent may offer proof of an accuser's dishonesty. They may provide witness testimony that contradicts the false claim. They may be able to point to similar wrongful conduct by the accuser. This defense strategy provides special challenges where the child is the accuser. The parent may find it difficult to call their child a liar in a court setting.
Making a false accusation of child abuse or neglect itself is likely a crime in your state or jurisdiction. This may occur when an adult, which could be another parent or a third party, makes a phone call to child protective services. Or they call law enforcement and falsely report abuse or neglect. Filing a false police report is most often a misdemeanor offense. However, it could lead to serious penalties or consideration of a felony charge depending on the extent of the deception and the specific circumstances.
Injury Due To Something Other Than Child Abuse
Most state child abuse laws don't punish accidents. They will assess whether the accident was a result of recklessness or gross carelessness. Examples of true accidents may include pushing your child on a bike and causing them to fall and scrape their knees. Another example is slamming a door on your toddler's hand. When a child's injuries are a result of an accident, a person may raise this as a defense against criminal charges. You can share evidence supporting an accident theory with law enforcement. Police and prosecutors can weigh such evidence and determine not to bring child abuse charges.
If criminal charges go forward, a criminal defense lawyer may use the accident evidence to rebut the intent element of the crime. Courts and juries sometimes must draw the line between the simple negligence of an accident and the gross negligence or recklessness of child endangerment. A tragic example of this balancing occurs in the cases where a parent leaves a sleeping baby in a car alone on a hot day.
There may be other situations where the "cause" of a child's physical injury lacks clarity. And sometimes, the "negligence" involved does not support intent for a crime.
For example, a parent may face child abuse or endangerment charges based on a fight between two children. The parent did not cause the injury. The focus may switch to the parent's level of supervision. Did they take reasonable steps to intervene and prevent physical harm?
Another defense to charges of child abuse may arise when an adult caregiver takes a child to the emergency room on the child's complaint of pain, or upon seeing bruises. Health care officials or the adult accompanying the child may presume that a parent is at fault. Physicians reviewing the child's health records may find evidence of broken bones. They may conclude that the child is at risk of substantial harm in the parent's home.
Upon a full investigation, authorities may conclude the evidence demonstrates that the child has a pre-existing medical condition that contributes to their own injuries. One such type of disease is "brittle bone disease." The child abuse defense attorney may claim that due to "brittle bone disease," the child's injuries were the result of the disease and not child abuse.
One form of child neglect involves a parent failing to provide appropriate medical care and treatment for a sick child. It's hard to grasp the thought of a child dying from an easily treatable illness. But most states provide a religious exemption to parents facing allegations of child abuse and neglect. The exemption applies to parents who believe they are following the tenets of their religion. This defense strategy may appear when the parent claims their religion demands prayer or spiritual treatment instead of traditional medical services.
Although controversial, this religious exemption can provide a criminal defense in many states. This defense is not available in all states. Application of the defense also may vary. For example, in California, the Penal Code provides that a parent's denial of medical treatment for religious reasons should not be the only basis of a child neglect charge. Parents may avoid neglect charges by making an informed and appropriate medical decision after consultation with a physician who has examined the child.
In Pennsylvania, Child Protective Services (CPS) must determine whether a parent or guardian's "sincerely held religious beliefs" are the reason for the denial of surgical or medical care. If so, they do not designate the child as mentally or physically abused. These rules apply as long as the beliefs are from a "bona fide" religion and the parent's decision has not resulted in death. The law directs CPS to watch the situation closely. CPS can request court-ordered medical treatment to protect the child's welfare (to prevent life-long harm or death).
Factitious Disorder Imposed on Another (FDIA)
In rare cases, an individual accused of child abuse may raise the lesser-known mental illness called Factitious Disorder Imposed on Another (FDIA). This illness was formerly known as Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSP). A case involving FDIA usually includes incidents in which a child caregiver either lies about or promotes illnesses in their child. They do this to draw attention or sympathy to themselves.
Child abuse cases with FDIA commonly involve the child's mother, although a father or a medical care provider may also have this illness. If raised as a defense, it will involve psychological or medical data and analysis of that data. Persons with FDIA often resist treatment and engage in denial. In a criminal case, it may amount to a type of diminished capacity or insanity defense.
Parents' Right to Discipline
Parents are generally free to discipline their children in any manner they choose. The discipline must be reasonable under the circumstances. Still, how a parent disciplines a child may lead to accusations of child abuse or domestic violence when the child suffers bodily harm. In some jurisdictions, spanking a child has acceptance, even though it may cause physical harm.
When facing child abuse allegations, a parent or guardian may raise a discipline defense. They assert that they engaged in reasonable discipline of a child under their authority.
Police, judges, and jurors are not immune to the concerns and challenges of parenting. When a claim of parental discipline appears, they want to provide appropriate scrutiny. If the facts support reasonable discipline, this can lead to exoneration. If the facts do not appear to be discipline-related or include serious bodily injury to the child, they may find physical abuse. They may conclude that the parental discipline privilege does not apply.
Most states today have laws that provide for a child abuse or neglect charge when a person engages in drunk driving and has a minor child in the vehicle. The presence of a child (often anyone under 18 years of age) can enhance the DUI charges. They may go from a first-degree misdemeanor to a felony. It may depend on the offender's criminal history and any physical harm suffered by the child.
If the child abuse or endangerment charge results from DUI, an offender may utilize any number of defenses associated with DUI. If they convince the judge or the jury that there was no impairment (and no DUI), then the child abuse charge may also be dismissed.
Learn More About Child Abuse Defenses: Talk to a Local Attorney
There are several criminal offenses that may involve allegations of child abuse. When reviewing a case, a defense attorney needs to be aware of all allegations, whether physical abuse, mental abuse, emotional abuse, or sexual abuse.
Depending on the facts of the case, there may be several defenses available. An experienced child abuse defense lawyer will understand the law in your state. They can review the facts of your case in light of defense law so you can consider your options. If you've been accused of child abuse or neglect, you can seek legal help. You can contact the law office of a skilled criminal defense attorney and better understand your rights with respect to child abuse laws in your state.