Child Desertion and Abandonment

Learn how states define and punish acts of child abandonment.

By , J.D.
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated 5/12/2023

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 a parent or guardian deserts or abandons a child, this 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.

Child Abandonment and Desertion Laws

Child abandonment and desertion laws typically cover several unlawful acts. Depending on the state law, one or more of the following acts committed willfully by a parent or legal guardian may constitute child abandonment or desertion:

  • physical abandonment or desertion without making necessary provisions for the child
  • nonsupport of a child (failure to provide necessary food, shelter, supervision, clothing, and medical attention)
  • failure or refusal to pay child support when able to do so, and
  • endangerment to a child's health or safety.

Accidentally forgetting or leaving a child alone does not typically 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 child neglect.

Most states also provide defenses for bona fide religious or moral objections to certain medical treatments and a person's legitimate inability to care for the child (mentally, physically, or financially). In addition, all states have infant safe haven laws.

What Acts Are Considered Child Abandonment or Desertion?

State laws on child abandonment and desertion vary significantly. Some states combine all the following acts under one crime, while others might have separate laws and penalties for one or more of these acts.

Physical Abandonment or Desertion of a Child

States generally make it a crime to willfully and physically desert or abandon a child without making alternative and reasonable provisions for that child's care and well-being. For example, Massachusetts makes it a felony for a parent or guardian to leave the state without making reasonable provisions for the support of the child. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 273, § 1 (2023).)

Nonsupport of a Child

A parent or legal guardian has a legal obligation to provide their child with necessities, such as food, shelter, clothing, supervision, and necessary medical care. Willfully failing to provide for these necessities can lead to desertion or abandonment charges.

In some states, nonsupport may also include a parent's willful failure to pay child support when the parent has the ability to do so. This offense is sometimes called criminal arrearages.

Child Endangerment: Exposing a Child 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 harm. However, in cases where a child is actually injured, other, more significant charges might apply. Minnesota makes child endangerment a gross misdemeanor, but the penalty increases to a 5-year felony if child suffers substantial physical, emotional, or mental harm. (Minn. Stat. § 609.378 (2023).)

Does the Age of the Child Matter?

Desertion and abandonment laws sometimes 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. Whereas, in Michigan, deserting or abandoning a child younger than 17 is considered a felony. A state's laws may differ on the age of the child based on the type of conduct involved as well. (La. Rev. Stat § 14:93.2.1, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.161 (2023).)

Is It Illegal to Leave Your Child Home Alone?

It depends on several factors. Only a few states set specific ages at which it's considered a crime or neglect to leave a child home alone or to place a child solely in charge of younger children. For example, Oregon considers it a misdemeanor to negligently leave a child younger than 10 unattended for a length of time that could endanger the child. Illinois considers it neglect or abuse to leave a child younger than 14 without supervision for an unreasonable amount of time. (705 Ill. Comp. Stat. § 405/2-3; Or. Rev. Stat. § 163.545 (2023).)

Most states don't set an age for leaving a child unsupervised. But it could still be considered child neglect, abuse, or endangerment under a state's laws depending on the circumstances. The child's age would likely be just one consideration. A court would also evaluate the child's maturity level, the length of time, the factors under which the child was left, and any other relevant factors. Local governments may also have laws regarding the supervision of children.

What Are the Penalties for Child Abandonment Offenses?

Because states have significantly different child desertion and abandonment laws, the possible penalties involved for anyone convicted of these crimes differ substantially. Most states make these crimes misdemeanors or low-level felonies, unless the child is harmed. If a child suffers injuries, stiffer felony penalties may apply.

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 state prison.

Here are some examples of state penalties for a child abandonment or desertion conviction.

  • California has several child abandonment and desertion laws. Parents who willfully fail to furnish necessary food, clothing, shelter, or medical attention face misdemeanor penalties. It's also a misdemeanor to refuse a child into one's home upon being requested by child protection. And a parent who intentionally abandons a child younger than 14 can face felony or misdemeanor penalties. (Cal. Penal Code §§ 270, 270.5, 271 (2023).)
  • Mississippi makes it a felony, punishable by up to 7 years in prison, for a parent to intentionally abandon a child younger than 6. Deserting or failing to support a child younger than 18 is also a felony and carries up to 5 years in prison and $10,000 in fines. (Miss. Stat. §§ 97-5-1, 97-5-3 (2023).)
  • In Oklahoma, someone convicted of desertion of a child under the age of 10 faces no less than one year and no more than 10 years in prison. (Okla. Stat. tit. 21, § 851 (2023).)

Defenses to Child Abandonment Laws

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. Some common defenses that apply in child abandonment or desertion cases include the following.

Inability to Support

Many states' child abandonment or nonsupport laws apply only if the defendant acted willfully in failing or refusing to provide support to a child. If a parent or guardian lacks the ability (whether financially, mentally, or physically) to properly care for the child, they may be able to argue they didn't intentionally abandon the child or fail to provide for the child's support.

Religious Beliefs or Morals Done in Good Faith

If a parent or guardian's religious beliefs or morals guide the health treatment of a child, these beliefs—if acted upon in good faith—may prevent their actions from being considered a crime under the law.

Safe Haven Laws: Abandoned Infant Protection Laws

Most (if not all) 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.

These laws vary widely regarding the maximum age of the child (ranging from 72 hours to one year old), what is considered a "safe haven" (hospital, police, church), and what type of immunity is available.

Talk to a Lawyer

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.

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