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What Is Child Abandonment?

Child abandonment is a crime where a parent or responsible party abandons a child, or knowingly leaves a child who is under the age of 13 without supervision for 24 hours or more, without regard for the child’s safety or welfare. Appropriate supervision is legally defined as under the care of a responsible person over the age of 14.

While the definition above generally applies to many situation, child abandonment may be defined differently or called something different depending on the state it takes place. For example, in Florida, the offense is known as “unlawful desertion of a child” but most classifications hinge around the concept of a minor being recklessly abandoned under conditions that may pose a risk of harm.

This definition is broad enough to encompass a variety of different behaviors and scenarios. If you leave children at home for an unreasonable amount of time, particularly if the kids are too young to fend for themselves, it may constitute child abandonment. Further, if a child is left with another individual for a period of many months, without any contact or provision for the child’s welfare, this too may constitute child abandonment. Abandoning a child in the such as leaving a newborn outside of hospital doors, for instance, is generally defined as child abandonment.

Penalty for Child Abandonment

Penalties for child abandonment charges vary by jurisdiction. Most include jail time and fines, and could also lead to termination of parental rights. In Florida, for example, child abandonment is categorized as a third-degree felony with a punishment of up to five years imprisonment as well as a fine of up to $5,000.

Things get a bit more complicated concerning charges of child abandonment in other states such as California. Depending upon the details and context of the case, the charge could be listed as a misdemeanor (child neglect) or a felony (child abandonment). In the case of child neglect, the punishment for those convicted could be up to one year in county jail, as well as a potential fine and probationary period. If instead, you are charged with a felony, the penalty is up to six years in a state prison in addition to fines and potential probation.

In Texas, there are three distinct charges related to child abandonment: abandonment with intent to return, abandonment with no intent to return and abandonment placing a child in imminent danger. Abandonment with intent to return is the least severe charge, and if you are convicted and found guilty, you could face six months to two years imprisonment as well as a fine. A conviction for abandonment with no intent to return results in a penalty of two to 10 years in prison and a potential fine. Offenders found guilty of abandonment placing a child in imminent danger could face two to 20 years in prison in addition to any fines.

What Is the Safe Haven Law?

Due to the number of high-profile child abandonment cases in the early 1990s — situations in which, often, infants were abandoned in unsafe places — many state governments began formulating so-called safe haven laws. Since the installation of safe haven or safe surrender laws, the number of newborns dying from exposure has declined.

Safe haven laws vary by jurisdiction, but they generally allow you to anonymously abandon a baby without harsh persecution. A baby must either be handed off to another person at a relinquishing station (usually part of a hospital or fire department) to fall under the protection of safe haven laws, with a few exceptions.

For example, in Indiana, safe haven baby boxes are available in certain areas. Mothers and fathers who wish to relinquish their child can place the child inside the climate-controlled box, where a silent alarm will immediately alert on-site staff to retrieve the infant. These safe haven baby boxes are usually attached to relinquishing stations and are monitored 24/7.

While the majority of states allow safe relinquishing of a newborn without prosecution, some states instead allow it as an affirmative defense if you are prosecuted.

Common Defenses Against Child Abandonment Charges

Safe haven or safe surrender laws are the most common frameworks invoked to defend against charges of child abandonment whenever applicable. This defense may either act as an absolute defense in certain states or as an affirmative defense in others.

In cases centered around the custody of a child or a reclamation of parental rights, fathers may have a defense involving ignorance of the child. If the father is accused of child abandonment, not knowing about the child may be a defense in certain states.

If charges focus on concerns of neglect instead of abandonment, the two being intertwined in many state statutes, a defense of economic poverty may be successful at fighting child abandonment charges.

What Do Child Abandonment Attorneys Do?

A lawyer who specializes in child abandonment cases will know the specifics of the law in your state, so you can fight back against these charges and accusations. Some of the factors the attorney might consider are:

  • The age of the child or children
  • How long the child was alone and the time of day
  • The condition of the home or location where the child was left
  • Whether a good faith effort was made to provide for the health and safety of the child

There are real consequences that come with a child abandonment conviction, including hefty fines, extensive jail time and even losing custody of your child.

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