Child Desertion and Abandonment

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Parents or guardians who care for minor children have a legal responsibility to protect the children and ensure they are not exposed to harm. When such an adult deserts or abandons a child, that behavior is often a crime. Even though child abandonment and desertion laws differ significantly among states, all states have laws that criminalize this type of behavior.

Desertion or Abandonment

The crime of child desertion or child abandonment occurs when a legally responsible adult leaves a child with the intention to abandon him or her. The parent or guardian must intend to sever the custodial ties over the child, and must often do so without regard for the child’s health and safety. Accidentally forgetting or leaving a child does not rise to the level of child abandonment or desertion, though prosecutors might be able to charge an adult in that situation with a different crime, such as reckless endangerment of a child.

Failure to support

A child’s or parent guardian has a legal obligation to provide that child with necessities, such as food, shelter, and clothing. Failing to provide for these necessities can lead to desertion or abandonment charges.

Exposure to danger or injury

Some abandonment or desertion laws apply to any situation where an adult caregiver exposes a child to danger or hazards, though these laws do not require that the child actually be injured or suffer a harm. However, in cases where a child is actually injured, other, more significant charges might apply.

Age

Desertion and abandonment laws often state a specific age. For example, the state of Louisiana makes it a crime to intentionally or negligently desert a child under the age of 10. On the other hand, anyone who intentionally abandons a child under the age of 14 in California commits the crime of willful desertion of the child.

Dependents

Some state’s abandonment laws apply not only to children, but also to adults who have mental or physical disabilities that prevent them from caring for themselves.

Possible Defenses

The defenses available in any criminal situation differ from case to case. The laws of your state, as well as the circumstances of your situation, will determine what defenses are available to you.

Abandoned Infant Protection Laws

Some states have enacted laws that allow parents to abandon a newborn child without committing an abandonment crime. For example, some states have laws that allow parents to deliver a newborn to a law enforcement officer, medical emergency room, or hospital staff member. If the parents abandon the child in a way the law allows for, they cannot be convicted of an abandonment crime.

Possible Penalties

Because states have significantly different child desertion and abandonment laws, the possible penalties involved for anyone convicted of these crimes differ substantially. Generally speaking, someone convicted of a misdemeanor crime faces a maximum penalty of up to a year in jail (though a few states allow for longer terms for misdemeanors), while someone convicted of a felony faces a year or more in a state prison. (However, even these general differences are not recognized in all states.) Here are some the possible penalties you face if you’re convicted of a child abandonment or desertion crime.

  • Incarceration. Anytime you are convicted of a misdemeanor or felony offense, you face the possibility of having to serve an incarceration sentence. A misdemeanor conviction might lead to up to a year (or more) in jail, while a felony conviction can bring a punishment of 10 years or more in a state prison. For example, someone convicted of desertion of a child under the age of 10 in Oklahoma faces no less than one year and no more than 10 years in prison.
  • Fines. Fines for desertion or abandonment also differ significantly among states. For example, someone in Mississippi who is convicted of desertion or non-support of a child under the age of 18 faces fines ranging from $100 to $10,000, depending on the circumstances of the case.
  • Probation. Someone convicted of an abandonment crime might also be sentenced to a period of probation. Probation usually lasts from about 12 months to as long as five years, though lengthier sentences are sometimes possible. People on probation will have their personal freedoms significantly limited, and must comply with specific probation conditions. These conditions often include, for example, reporting to a probation officer, paying all court costs and fines, maintaining employment, seeking mental health counseling, and performing community service.

Find a Lawyer in Your Area

If investigators have questioned you about a possible child abandonment or desertion situation, you need to speak to a criminal defense lawyer near you as soon as possible. Lawyers in your area who understand the relevant state laws and who have experience representing clients in local courtrooms are the only people who can give you legal advice about your case. Child abandonment and desertion laws are very serious, and you should talk to an attorney as soon as you learn you are under investigation or have been charged with a crime.

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