Child Endangerment Charges

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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Child endangerment charges are brought when a person engages in conduct that places a child in imminent danger of death, bodily injury, or physical or mental impairment. Child endangerment is usually listed with assaultive offenses, but does not automatically require the commission of an assault or evidence of an actual injury. Instead, child endangerment focuses more on the potential for a harm or injury to the child. Read further to learn more about the nature of a child endangerment charge, some of the available defenses, and the punishment associated with a child endangerment conviction.

Overview of Child Endangerment Charges

Child endangerment is a proactive offense. It is designed to discourage parental conduct which could lead to possible injury or harm to a child. The first component of a child endangerment charge is proof of the relationship between the child and the defendant. Only a defendant who has accepted responsibility for a child by exercising care, custody, or control over a child can be charged with child endangerment. This would apply to anyone who has assumed care for the child, such as parents, grand-parents, teachers, and daycare workers.

The second component is an act or omission by the defendant. When most people think about child endangerment charges, they envision someone placing his child in a risky situation, such as leaving the child alone in a hot car during a heat wave. However, child endangerment also includes omissions, things that the caregiver failed or refused to do. For example, if a daycare worker knew that a child had a serious medical condition which required routine medicine to avoid a seizure, but the defendant still refused to give the child the medicine because he didn’t want to be bothered, then the intentional failure to act could result in a child endangerment charge.

Because of the increase in drug related offenses, some states have enacted presumptions in child endangerment charges. A presumption is a conclusion that is automatically deemed to be correct with no additional evidence. If the presumption is shown, then the burden shifts to the defendant to disprove the presumption. One such presumption involves the consumption of controlled substances around children. For example, if a caregiver ingests methamphetamine in the presence of a child he is responsible for, the law will presume that the child is in imminent danger without any additional proof by the state. This is a significant presumption, especially since imminent danger is the third major component of any child endangerment charge.

Unless there is an applicable presumption, law enforcement must find evidence that a child was in imminent danger to support child endangerment charges. A mere possibility or hypothetical danger is not enough. There must be evidence that the act or omission posed a real threat to the child.

Continuing with the car example, high heat can lead to extreme injuries for children left in a car at the grocery store parking lot. The state could present evidence of the temperature that day and video cameras from the store to show that the danger was real and imminent. Conversely, if the temperatures were much lower and the duration of time spent away from the child was extremely short, the state would have a harder time proving that the conduct put the child in immediate danger.

Most defensive theories tend to focus on the level of proof required for these components of a child endangerment charge.

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Defenses to Child Endangerment

The first defense to charges of child endangerment is to question or attack the proof of imminent danger. This is probably the most contested area for these charges, because the definition of imminent danger tends to be speculative. Some people have no problem leaving a fourteen year old teenager at home alone. Others would perceive the same action as endangerment of a minor.

The second defense is to attack the proof of the relationship between the caregiver and the child. This is usually an issue when someone has previously served as a caregiver, but no longer wants to assume that role.

The third defense is proof that the defendant delivered the child to a safe haven. Many states have enacted this defense to prevent unwanted babies from ending up in dumpsters. If a person does not want or cannot care for the child, he can avoid a criminal charges by taking the child to an emergency room at a hospital or other safe haven. Even though this was intended more for infants and newborns, some parents have turned over older children that they simply were not able to care for during times of economic hardship.

Punishment and Consequences

Child endangerment has two potential set of consequences. The first is a criminal punishment that can range from six months to twenty years depending on the nature of the charge. Charges can be either a misdemeanor or felony. States will graduate or increase the charges as the conduct or omissions worsen. For example, if an omission by a parent could have resulted in death and not just an injury to the child, the parent would face a higher range of punishment. 

If a defendant is placed on probation, the court can impose conditions related to the pertinent charges, including parenting classes, counseling, and restricted access to the child. Some states incorporate mandatory conditions into the endangerment charges by statute. California, for example, requires the completion of an extensive parenting class.

The second type of consequences relates to the defendant’s relationship with the child, or any other children. Even when a defendant is only charged with an offense of child endangerment, many state child protective agencies will investigate to see if a defendant’s parental rights to the child should be restricted or terminated. Many will focus on reuniting the child with the parent, but only after the defendant has completed a series of parenting classes and home visits to insure the future safety of the child in question and any other children in the home.

Getting Help

Child endangerment is a serious charge that should not be taken lightly. If a defendant is already involved in a civil custody dispute or has previously been involved in a custody suit, he should visit with a family law and criminal law attorney to insure that the resolution of the charges do not create long-term issues in any future child custody hearings.

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