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California Child Neglect and Child Abandonment Laws

Overview of California Child Neglect and Abandonment Laws

Child abandonment and neglect laws protect the well-being and safety of children. Each state has its own legal definition for "child abuse," which typically includes neglect and child abandonment. See Child Abuse Background and History to learn more about the emergence of such laws in general.

California state laws criminalize the conduct of a parent who willfully withholds care, food, shelter, medical services, or other remedial care from a child without a lawful excuse. California includes prayer or spiritual treatment by an accredited practitioner of a religious denomination or recognized church as "remedial care" for the purposes of state law. When reviewing a parent's conduct, the state courts must consider the parent's income and financial resources to determine whether the parent willfully or intentionally withheld care or support from a child.

California state laws also seek to protect each child's right to support from both parents. State law permits a prosecutor to pursue a misdemeanor charge if a parent refuses to accept a child into his or her home after being instructed to do so by a child-welfare agency or law-enforcement agency.

In addition, California criminalizes the conduct of a parent who willfully exposes a child to the likelihood of physical harm, mental suffering, or death, or who knowingly endangers a child by placing the child in an unsafe situation. If a parent knows that harm might occur and allows a child to continue in the harmful situation, the parent's conduct might be enough for a prosecutor to charge the parent with a criminal offense.

California Child Neglect and Child Abandonment Laws Overview

Below you will find key provisions of California’s child neglect and child abandonment laws.


California Penal Code Section 270-273.75 et. seq. (Child Neglect)


  • Child Neglect: Misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in county jail, fine, probation.

Note: ***Child abandonment, abuse, or neglect can also result in consequences through California's civil courts. The state or county child-welfare agency may become concerned about the family. A case involving child abandonment and neglect may affect the parental rights of the mother or father charged with the crime.***

Possible Defenses

  • Safe surrender
  • Cultural defense
  • Mistaken identity
  • Acting within your right to discipline your child

Related Charge

  • California Penal Code Section 273a: (Child Abandonment): A person commits child abandonment/endangerment if he/she causes or permits a child to suffer unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering, willfully causes or permits a child in their care to be injured, or willfully causes or permits a child to be placed in a dangerous situation. Penalties include either misdemeanor up to one year in county jail, fine, probation or felony charges (if risk of great bodily harm or death to the child) up to six years in state prison, fine, probation or parole.

Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.

California Codes and Legal Research Options

Additional Resources

If you have additional questions about California’s child neglect and child abandonment laws, click on the following links:

Accused of Child Neglect or Child Abandonment? Get Legal Help

Child neglect and child abandonment are serious charges in California. Not only are the penalties stiff, you could also lose custody of your child in some situations. If you're facing child neglect, child abandonment, or any other types of criminal charges, it's in your best interest to speak to a criminal defense attorney in California to learn more about the charges and explore possible defenses.

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