An adult caring for a child has a legal responsibility to ensure that the child is free from unreasonably dangerous situations. When an adult caregiver fails to adequately protect a child, states often punish this as a crime known as "child endangerment."
Child endangerment occurs whenever a parent, guardian, or other adult caregiver allows a child to be placed or remain in a dangerous, unhealthy, or inappropriate situation. Some states charge this crime as a type of child abuse.
Though state laws differ in how they categorize and punish child endangerment, it is a crime in every state. State laws generally share the following characteristics.
Child endangerment laws are often very broadly applied, and any number of acts can lead to a conviction. Courts have held that obviously dangerous activities—such as having a child in a car while driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs—constitute child endangerment. Other dangerous activities that qualify include failing to properly secure a child while driving an automobile, exposing a child to drug transactions or manufacturing, having unsecured firearms in the same environment as a child, engaging in sexual activity in view of a child, or leaving a young child without proper supervision.
Child endangerment laws are designed to punish behavior that might lead to a child becoming harmed, but they do not require that children actually suffer an injury or physical harm. State laws often categorize child endangerment as placing a child in a situation that might endanger the child's life, health, welfare, morals, or emotional well-being. However, child endangerment may still be charged in cases where the actions of the caregiver did eventually result in the child being physically injured or harmed.
To obtain a conviction for child endangerment crime, a prosecutor does not have to show that a parent or caregiver intentionally meant to expose the child to a dangerous situation. The courts apply a "reasonable person" standard in child endangerment cases. This means that even if the accused didn't realize the situation was dangerous, reasonable people in that situation would have understood their actions endangered the child's well-being. The circumstances of each case will determine whether the accused either knew or should have known that the child was endangered.
Generally, an adult caregiver must do more than simply make a mistake or act unwisely. A caregiver must place a child in a situation where it is more likely than not that the child will become exposed to harm. Courts have ruled, for example, that parents who left their child in a locked car with the engine running while they went into a store for approximately 40 minutes did not endanger the child.
Child endangerment can be punished as either a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the circumstances of the case and state law. The difference between a misdemeanor and felony charge often rests upon whether the child was exposed to significant harm or placed in a particularly dangerous situation. Some states also differentiate felonies and misdemeanors based on whether the child suffered actual physical harm as a result of the adult's actions.
People convicted of a misdemeanor child endangerment charge typically face up to one year in jail. Felony convictions are much more serious, and anyone convicted of felony child endangerment could spend several years in prison or more.
Courts may also order someone convicted of child endangerment to serve a probation sentence. Probation typically lasts at least a year and requires the convicted person to regularly report to a probation officer, as well as take other actions such as attending family counseling and refraining from further illegal activity. Violating the terms of probation can result in the court ordering a jail or prison sentence.
Fines imposed for child endangerment convictions differ widely. A misdemeanor child endangerment conviction can bring fines of up to $1,000, while felony convictions can come with fines of up to $5,000 or more.
If a parent or legal guardian is convicted of child endangerment, the court may strip the parent of parental rights. In this situation, either the other parent will retain sole parental rights, or if there is no other parent, the court will appoint a new guardian to care for the child. The child may also be placed with the state child services agency until a new guardian can be appointed.
In child endangerment cases, the defense might try to poke holes in the prosecution's case by creating reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors. For instance, the defense could make one of the following arguments.
False allegation. A defendant might claim that they've been falsely accused of child endangerment. While not limited to custody battles, a heated personal situation like a divorce or custody hearing may spur a false accusation.
Not endangerment. Depending on the facts of the case, the defense might be able to prove that the situation was not, in fact, a dangerous situation.
Accidental. The defense might also try to establish that the defendant didn't act in a reckless or negligent way. Rather, the situation was accidental.
A child endangerment charge is a very serious matter. One that can result in significant criminal penalties as well as the potential loss of parental rights. Anyone facing child endangerment charges should immediately speak to a qualified local criminal defense attorney. An experienced criminal defense attorney can give you legal advice about your situation and how the laws of your state apply to your case.