Children, who by definition need the guardianship and care of adults, are among the most vulnerable and innocent victims of crimes. Crimes against children include physical and emotional abuse, neglect, and sexual exploitation, such as through child sexual abuse, child pornography, or sex trafficking of minors.
Unfortunately, parents, relatives, caretakers, and others charged with their care and guidance often perpetrate child-related crimes. Child advocates tell us child safety education must go beyond "stranger danger" programs to be effective. Most states force school officials, physicians, nurses, police officers, and others who regularly interact with children to report any signs of abuse, neglect, or exploitation of a child.
The Crimes Against Children subsection includes articles that cover child abuse, statutory rape, child pornography, sexting, and other crimes against children.
When considering crimes against children, it is most likely the crime of child abuse comes to mind first. Since the 1970s, an unprecedented awareness movement has captured the nation's attention, causing huge changes in law and policy. Child abuse covers a wide range of conduct. Child abuse may lead to criminal charges or protective actions in juvenile or family court, depending on the circumstances.
Criminal child abuse cases most often focus on incidents of physical abuse. For example, a parent or caregiver strikes a child, causing bodily injury. If the physical injury is minor, the crime may be a misdemeanor. If the child suffered severe physical harm, law enforcement will likely treat the incident as a felony offense. If the abuser is a parent or a family or household member who lives with the child, the state can also consider domestic violence charges. Yet, a parent can defend that they were engaging in reasonable physical discipline of the child. This defense most often arises when the allegation relates to spanking a child to the point of leaving marks.
Child abuse charges may also follow severe or repeated emotional or psychological abuse of a child. Without a physical assault, a parent or caregiver may restrain a child in a way that creates a risk of serious bodily harm or harm to the child's mental health. For example, a parent locks their children in a cage or keeps them constrained in poor conditions for a prolonged time.
A child abuse conviction may result in jail time (misdemeanor) or a prison sentence (felony), as well as fines and costs. It may also harm the exercise of parental rights in cases before the family court.
Allegations of child neglect or endangerment are more common than complaints of child abuse. Child neglect covers many behaviors extending from "bad parenting" to serious risks to a child's health and safety. Criminal cases of child neglect often result from circumstances where a parent leaves a child home alone without adequate supervision by an older child or adult. It may also occur when a parent fails to provide for the child's basic needs, like food, clothing, and shelter.
Law enforcement may often bring child neglect charges when a parent or caregiver's conduct exposed the child to illegal drugs or drug activity. Similarly, neglect may occur when a parent or caregiver engages in drunken or drugged driving with a child in the motor vehicle. Police may file a child neglect charge along with the DUI. The child's presence may also increase the possible penalties for the offense.
A conviction for child neglect or child endangerment may result in different penalties based on whether the offense was a misdemeanor or a felony. It may also lead to modification of parental rights in family court.
Sex Crimes Against Children
Sexual abuse of children gets harsh treatment in the criminal justice system today. The rise in public awareness and several institutional scandals have led to changes in the criminal justice system. This has resulted in new crimes, tough sentences, and registration laws for released sex offenders.
State rape laws have adjusted to the public outcry to address child sexual assault and child molestation. State laws vary, but many states now provide the possibility of a life sentence for certain sexual acts perpetrated on children under a specified age.
For example, the California Penal Code says that any adult who engages in sexual intercourse or sodomy with a child who is 10 years of age or younger will face a sentence of 25 years to life in state prison. If the offense involves oral copulation or penetration, the sentence is 15 years to life.
In contrast to California law, Pennsylvania defines child rape as participating in sexual intercourse with a child that is under 13 years of age. The definition of sexual intercourse includes oral, vaginal, and anal sex. The state sets a definite sentence of 40 years for such an offense. If the offender caused serious bodily harm in the rape of a child, the possible penalty includes life in prison.
States have updated their laws to address issues such as child pornography, child sex trafficking, and solicitation. States have also adjusted their statutory rape laws, clarifying and modifying age differences outlined in older statutes. Generally, states have created stronger penalties for unlawful sex between adults and minors.
How Do You Report Child Abuse or Neglect?
Any parent, caregiver, or responsible person may report child abuse, neglect, or child sex crime. Local police officers and child protective services can accept a report. Some states require all people to report such crimes. Other states require mandatory reporting by certain professions, such as education, health care, and law enforcement. In cases of child sexual abuse or serious physical abuse or neglect, the first report may occur in the local hospital's emergency room.
Once someone files a report, social workers at child protective services will investigate. They will first seek to substantiate the report. They will refer the case for legal action if they conclude that abuse or neglect happened. Legal action may include criminal charges or an action in family court to take temporary custody of the child. When criminal law violations appear, local law enforcement will also investigate. They will make an arrest if they find probable cause for a crime.
If you are unsure and need to discuss your options, consider calling the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453). It's a toll-free number. They can hear your concerns and refer you to those who can help.
Prevention and Safety Tips
Many resources offer practical crime prevention and safety tips for parents with children. Efforts to educate children may vary based on their age. The internet, social media, and mobile devices present special concerns for older children.
Once some abuse has happened, whether someone contacted the police, a parent can take legal action to protect the child from the abuser. This may include filing a restraining order in civil or criminal court when a criminal case is pending. Protection or restraining orders are available in most violent crime cases. You may want to contact a victim services provider or a local attorney for more information.
Are You Accused of Committing a Crime Against A Child? Talk With An Attorney.
If you have questions or know someone accused of committing a crime against a child, talk with an experienced criminal defense attorney. They can provide more information on the laws of your state and how they may apply to your situation.