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Criminal Child Abuse

Child abuse as a criminal offense covers a wide range of injuries or harmful conduct inflicted upon a child. Every state has its own definition of criminal child abuse that declares who is a minor, what behavior constitutes criminal conduct, and what penalties are at stake for a conviction. Whether a misdemeanor or a felony, these are serious criminal charges, and a conviction can lead to severe consequences like losing custody of a child or a prison sentence.

Facing a child abuse accusation is a frightening, stressful, and emotional experience, making it all the more important to familiarize yourself with this area of law. It is important to understand that you do not need to face this charge alone, and you can have a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney by your side during this difficult time.

Child Abuse as a Criminal Offense

Generally, criminal child abuse occurs when a person assaults or harms a child. This is a broad offense that may involve a wide range of intentional, neglectful, and reckless conduct against a child including:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Psychological or emotional abuse
  • Exploitation
  • Maltreatment
  • Child abandonment
  • Neglect
  • Endangerment

Recently, a number of states have expanded their definitions of neglect. It can include withholding food, medical care, or even education in a number of jurisdictions. Some states may include child abuse as a criminal offense under their domestic violence laws as well.

Discipline Versus Child Abuse

The line between what behavior constitutes child abuse and common discipline is unclear. Sometimes, an accusation leading to a child abuse charge may stem from a parent or guardian disciplining their child.

While criminal child abuse laws aim to protect children from harm and maltreatment, some of the types of behavior defined can be controversial in some states. Past approaches of disciplining a child, such as spanking, threatening, or loudly chastising, may now be considered criminal conduct under new, stricter state laws.

Sometimes a parent or guardian may feel that the government is interfering with their ability to make decisions on how to raise a child. If you feel that you were falsely accused of this offense, working with a criminal defense attorney experienced with child abuse cases may be essential to protecting your rights as a parent.

Allegations & Mandatory Reporting

Parents and legal guardians are not the only people who can face criminal child abuse charges. Family members or caretakers, babysitters, daycare staff, foster care givers, teachers, coaches, mentors, or other persons close to a child may find themselves facing allegations of abuse or neglect as well.

Allegations of child abuse are typically reported to state law enforcement or child protective services (CPS). In some extremely serious cases involving federal crimes, federal law enforcement agencies, like the FBI, may get involved.

While a child can report an accusation of abuse themselves, usually adults who suspect that the child is suffering make the allegations. Some professionals are subject to mandatory reporting laws, meaning they have to report child abuse if they know or suspect it. Typically, those subject to this are teachers, social workers, doctors, nurses, and other careers that involve working closely with children.

Investigating Criminal Child Abuse

After police and child protective services receive a report, there is an investigation to figure out if any criminal conduct actually occurred. This may start with the police conducting a welfare check at the child's home or school.

During the investigation, the police or CPS look for evidence of criminal behavior or abuse. A social worker or child psychologist may interview the child and others who may have insight into the allegations. There are also instances where CPS or law enforcement may remove a child from their home if they feel the home is unsafe. This means the child may be placed in foster care until the end of the case.

If the state believes there is enough evidence, the prosecutor may decide to file child abuse charges. You will have the opportunity to mount a strong defense, just like any other criminal charge.

If convicted, then there is a sentencing hearing to deliver the penalties. Sometimes, the prosecutor may offer a plea bargain to negotiate a lesser sentence or avoid burdening the child with going through a trial.

Penalties for Criminal Child Abuse

A conviction of criminal child abuse can come with drastic consequences, including:

  • Terminating parental or child custody rights
  • Serving a prison sentence or parole
  • Registering as a sex offender
  • Completing court-ordered therapy or parenting classes
  • Paying civil fines
  • Being subject to restraining orders

Most states have specific minimum and maximum penalty requirements for different types of offenses. There are a number of factors that the court considers during sentencing such as the nature of the conduct, the duration of the abuse, the age of the child, and if you have a history of similar criminal convictions.

Defending Against Child Abuse Charges

Given the serious nature of these allegations, crafting a strong legal defense is crucial to overcoming criminal charges. Sometimes this may involve proving the child's injury was an accident, or that the allegations are false and you were wrongfully accused. Other child abuse cases involve demonstrating you were disciplining your child within your parental rights and state laws.

Navigating a criminal case can be intimidating, so you may find it wise to work with a criminal law attorney to help guide you and ensure your rights are protected. You may decide to find your own experienced private criminal defense attorney to advocate on your behalf, or you may financially qualify for a court-appointed public defender. Hiring an attorney is a personal choice, and some people do end up opting to represent themselves, but it is important to keep in mind the severity of a child abuse charge and that the outcome may have lifelong consequences. Experienced legal advice is preferable.