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What is Child Abandonment?

Every parent has a legal obligation to support their minor children, including providing food, clothing, shelter, and medical care, if necessary. And this obligation exists until a child has been adopted, emancipated, or otherwise removed from the home.

Law enforcement can charge parents who fail to meet this obligation with child abandonment or neglect under state criminal laws.

Child Abandonment Laws in the United States

More than 7,000 American children are abandoned each year. These children are often at higher risk of emotional disorders, low self-esteem, and other mental and physical issues.

The crime of child abandonment has a very broad definition and can include different acts that vary from state to state. Generally speaking, child abandonment occurs when a parent or guardian either fails to provide necessary care for their child or when they entirely desert a child without regard for their welfare and safety and with no intent to return for them.

While some states have laws specifically denoting the crime of child abandonment, many states group child abandonment together with other child abuse laws.

Physical and Emotional Child Abandonment

Criminal child abandonment is typically physical. In New York, it involves a parent physically leaving a child alone without the intent to return. This might include leaving an infant on a doorstep or on the side of a road.

Emotional abandonment, however, is also illegal in some states. In Florida, this involves failure to provide for the needs of a child even while being physically present. An example might involve parents who do not provide their children with necessary shelter, medical care, or clothing.

Other examples of child abandonment might include:

  • Leaving a child in another person’s care without provisions to care for them
  • Failing to maintain regular visitation with the child for six months
  • Failing to respond to child custody notices or child protective notices
  • Leaving a child at home alone for long enough that harm may result

Leaving Children at Home Alone

Some states offer specific guidelines for the ages at which a parent can leave a child alone at home and for how long. In Maryland, for example, a child cannot be alone at home until the age of eight. In Illinois, however, the legal age is 14.

In other states, the legality of leaving a child at home alone depends on a variety of factors such as the child’s maturity, the safety of the surrounding areas, and the child’s sense of safety. These states often still provide guidelines for determining whether a child is mature enough and how long parents can safely leave them alone.

Mandatory Reporting of Child Abandonment

In states that group child abandonment with child abuse, state statutes may require that certain individuals report signs of child abandonment to law enforcement. In those states, these individuals might include:

  • Teachers, school staff, and administrators
  • Medical professionals
  • Counselors and therapists
  • Childcare providers
  • Social workers
  • Workers providing organized activities for children

In other states, anyone over the age of 18 who notices signs of child abandonment must report it or face criminal penalties. Those reporting child abandonment or abuse do not need to provide proof of the offense, but they may need to report the circumstances and facts that led them to believe the abuse was taking place.

Penalties for Child Abandonment

Penalties for child abandonment vary from state to state and depend on whether the state considers the offense a felony or a misdemeanor.

In California, child abandonment or neglect is in some cases considered a misdemeanor, and convictions result in up to a year of jail time, a $2,000 fine, or both. More serious cases constitute felonies, and convictions could bring up to as many as six years in prison.

Oregon classifies abandonment of a child under the age of 15 as a Class C felony, and convictions can lead to a sentence of up to five years in prison, a fine up to $125,000, or both.

Safe-Haven Laws

Many states have passed Safe Haven laws (or “Baby Moses” laws). These statutes allow parents to abandon infants anonymously without facing child abandonment charges, as long as they do so in designated safe locations. These laws vary by state and may specify a maximum age for the infant and designate which locations qualify as safe for this purpose. The locations often include hospitals, churches, fire stations, and police stations.

Child Abandonment Charges

Any criminal charge is serious, and accusations of child abandonment or neglect can have significant consequences on child custody. When child protective services (CPS) receives reports of neglect or abuse, they initiate an investigation, and if they feel that the child is in danger, they can remove them from the home.

If you have been accused of child abandonment or neglect, contact an experienced family law or criminal defense attorney immediately to protect your rights.