While childhood should be a time of protection and growth in a safe environment, many children become victims of domestic violence, hence do not get to enjoy their childhood. Forms of domestic violence against children as defined by law may include child abuse, child endangerment, and child neglect, among others. Whether it is abuse or neglect, any kind of violence against a child may have irreversible emotional scars. Therefore, child neglect accusations are taken seriously in many states. With child neglect being the most common form of domestic violence against children, the state of California seeks to protect the dignity and safety of children by criminalizing child neglect.
In California, laws governing child neglect are under Penal Code section 270 PC. The courts prosecute a violation of this law as a misdemeanor. The law also defines the crime as a failure to provide care for a child. According to the law, even parents who have limited or no contact with their children could be liable for violating Penal Code 270. This provision on absentee parents and the fact that child neglect is an act of omission makes it possible for cases of wrongful accusation. A child neglect conviction can have long-lasting adverse effects on your life, including your work and family life. If you are facing child neglect accusations in Los Angeles, CA, our skilled attorneys at The LA Criminal Defense Law Firm are committed to helping you defend your rights.
What is Child Neglect?
Generally, child neglect is a behavior pattern in which a parent or caregiver fails to adequately provide their child with life's necessities, including food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. While things like food, shelter, and clothing cover the child's physical needs, neglect may also manifest in emotional needs. In this case, the parent or caregiver fails to provide the child with the necessary support, love, and affection. Such a parent may neglect their child's hygiene, fail to sufficiently supervise them, or fail to attend to their medical needs.
Child Neglect under California Law
According to California’s Penal Code section 270 PC, a parent or caregiver is guilty of child neglect if he/she “willfully fails or omits without lawful excuse to provide necessities” for their child. The necessities include clothing, shelter, food, and medical or other remedial care. The state laws include spiritual or religious guidance from accredited religious practitioners as among the remedial care. Hence, these are necessities that a parent should provide to his/her child. Child neglect is a serious offense in California, and the law treats it as a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $2000, or a sentence of up to one year in county jail or both. However, in its review of the parent's conduct, the court is required to consider their financial capabilities, including their income, to determine whether the neglect was intentional or willful.
For the purposes of prosecuting child neglect and other related offenses, California law broadly defines a parent as any person, including adoptive parents who identify themselves as a parent to a child.
Who is Considered a Parent?
While the definition of a parent seems straightforward, some parental situations are not easy to define. According to California law, parental situations or categories of people that are parents include:
- A husband who is married to and lives with the child’s mother. Fundamentally, for cohabiting couples, paternity is presumed. The husband must not be impotent or sterile. However, if the baby was born through artificial insemination with the husband’s written consent, then he is a parent to the child. In some cases, the wife may have been having sex with other people; hence the husband is not the biological father. In such instances, the husband will only be able to avoid parental obligation if he or someone else institutes a paternity case within two years of the child's birth, and the court determines that he is not the father.
- Anyone who is divorced from a parent with whom they had a baby together. This includes those parents that do not have any custody rights. The law still considers you a parent even if you have never met the child or only saw them at birth.
For example, John and June divorced when their son was three years old. Even though the child stays with June and John has no legal custody, he is still criminally liable under California law if the child is not receiving necessary care. According to PC 270, being divorced or not having custody rights is not a lawful excuse for a parent not to provide care to their child. However, this does not apply to a parent who lawfully gives up their child for adoption.
- A man having a child with a woman, even if they never get married. In this case, the man does not need to have been married to or to have been in a relationship with the mother for parental obligations to arise. All that is required are sexual relations, including in a one-night stand. If a man had sexual relations with the child's mother, and these relations led to the conception of the child, everything else is beside the point.
For example, James, a married man, and Rose, a single lady, are total strangers but end up having a one-night stand after a night of clubbing. They exchange numbers, and each goes their way. A few months later, Rose realizes she is pregnant and informs James. James does not want anything to do with Rose or the child and cut off communications. A few years later, James learns that Rose can no longer support the child as she is unemployed. To protect his marriage, James decides to ignore the issue. Even though James has never been married to Rose and has never met his child, he is a parent and is liable for child neglect.
- Any person who legally adopts or assumes legal responsibility for a child. Such a person assumes parental obligations hence has to provide necessities for the child. You do not need to be a child's biological parent to be legally liable for their care. Adoptive parents and anyone else who assumes legal responsibility for a child, including relatives, is a parent by law.
Unlike California's law on child abuse and child endangerment, the state laws on child neglect mean that a parent who has rare or limited contact with a child may also be held liable for child neglect. Critics have pointed out that this aspect of the California law may be misused hence leading to unfair and wrongful accusations. For example, a man who was not aware that he had a baby with his ex-girlfriend may face unfair child neglect accusations.
Child Neglect Penalties
Mostly, California laws prosecute child neglect or the crime of failing to provide care for a child as a misdemeanor. The penalties for the misdemeanor offense include:
- A summary probation
- A jail term not exceeding one year in county jail
- A fine not exceeding $2000
- Both the fine and the jail term
While most child neglect cases are prosecuted in California as misdemeanors, some aggravating factors may result in felony charges. A previous adjudication by the court of you as a parent of the child is an aggravating factor in a child neglect case. In this case, a violation becomes a wobbler meaning the court can decide to charge you with a misdemeanor or a felony offense. However, this will largely depend on the specific circumstances of the case and your criminal record. If the court charges you with felony child neglect, the potential penalties include:
- A maximum of one year in county jail or one year plus a day in state prison
- A maximum fine of $2000
- Both the fine and the jail term
However, there are constitutional limits that ensure that there are no cases of wrongful child neglect accusations. For example, it is unlikely that the prosecutor will pursue felony child neglect if you have never been convicted of child neglect.
What the Prosecutor Needs to Prove
Similar to other criminal cases, the burden of proof lies with the prosecutor. To prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you are in violation of California’s Penal Code section 270 PC and are guilty of child neglect, the prosecutor needs to show the existence of some elements. The elements that the prosecutor needs to prove to the court include:
- That you are the child’s parent. Under California's Penal Code 270, you are a child's parents if they are your biological or adopted child. You do not need to be married to the child's other parents to have parental obligations. Anyone who holds themselves out as a parent to the child is considered by the law to have parental obligations. These people include guardians, caretakers, and family members such as grandparents, uncles, and aunts. Essentially, it is only a 'parent' as defined by the law who can commit the crime of child neglect.
- That the child was a minor. The prosecution needs to prove the child was under the age of 18 at the time of the crime. The description of a minor under California law includes even unborn children.
- You failed or omitted to provide the child with necessities. The prosecutor needs to prove that you deprived the child of life necessities as outlined under 270 PC, including food, clothing, shelter, medical, and other remedial care.
- > That your failure to provide the child with necessities was willful and intentional. The prosecution needs to prove that your acts of omission were unjustifiable and done intentionally. The prosecutor has to convince the court that your failure to provide for the child was not as a result of circumstances that were beyond your control, such as unemployment or other financial challenges.
While the burden of proof lies with the prosecutor, you are required to carefully present evidence that shows you have been providing the child with necessities or that your omission was not willful and can be a lawful excuse. For example, you might complicate things for yourself if you allow the prosecutor to easily prove that you did not put any effort into looking for a job after losing the previous one. In such a case, the prosecution may claim that your failure to provide was not justifiable but was willful.
Similarly, if the evidence you present in court leads to the suspicion that your failure to provide for your child was as a result of misplaced priorities, then you complicate your defense. Examples of misplaced priorities may include a parent who decides to spend their money on extravagant clothing or parties but fails to pay rent hence does not provide shelter for their child. While there are many legal options in a child neglect case, it is crucial to avoid scenarios that make it easy for the prosecution to prove your alleged crime.
Common Legal Defenses
A child neglect defense depends on several factors, including the defendant's criminal record, the nature of the deprived necessity, and the level of neglect suffered by the child. However, if you are charged with child neglect, there are several fact-based defenses that a skilled attorney can use to defend you in court. The defenses include:
You weren’t the minor’s parent: It is only legal parents who are legally responsible for a minor’s care. You need to prove to the court that you are not the minor’s parent hence you are not legally responsible for his/her care. You are not the legal parent if the minor is not your biological child, if he/she was born while the mother was married to someone else or if someone else lawfully adopted the child. You are also not the child’s parent if he/she was conceived through artificial insemination without your written consent. By successfully proving that you are not the legal parent, you will have avoided a child neglect conviction.
The child was not a minor: Even though you may be the legal parent, you are only required to provide care or necessities to a child who is under eighteen. If you can prove that the child was over eighteen years of age by the time of the child neglect accusations, then you will not be convicted of violating Penal Code 270.
For example, a divorced parent may be maliciously accused by the other parent of stopping to provide necessary care for his/her child who is already eighteen While a parent may continue caring for their child even after turning eighteen, they are not legally obligated
False Accusations: Cases involving child care and custody are highly susceptible to malicious accusations. In most cases, the parties to the case are estranged lovers hence the likelihood of unfounded accusations even on a parent who is fulfilling their obligations. For this defense to be successful, you will need to prove the motive behind the false allegations, including revenge. A skilled attorney will help you get your charges dropped if the allegations leveled against you are false.
For example, a divorced husband may be wrongfully accused by a former partner of child neglect as a way of blackmailing him into giving more child support money or only out of revenge. These accusations can happen even when the child without custodial rights is paying child support as mandated by the court.
A mistake of fact. California laws mandate several groups of professionals to report any suspected cases of child abuse and or child neglect. The mandated groups include teachers and school administrators, social workers, the clergy, and healthcare workers, including doctors and nurses. As mandated reporters, they are liable for a misdemeanor if they fail to report a suspected case of child abuse and or neglect. This liability may prompt some mandated reporters to mistakenly report any suspicious activity that they interpret as child neglect. For this defense to be successful, you will be required to provide evidence of care and convince the court that the accusations are a mistake of fact.
For example, your six-year-old child suddenly starts arriving late for school, and their teacher suspects it is because you cannot provide shelter, and the child has to walk from a homeless shelter on the other side of town. The child confirms that she is currently not living at home, and the teacher goes ahead to file a child neglect report. The truth is you are away on a two-week-long business trip out of state, and you have left the child under the care of your parents. The child's grandparents are yet to adapt to the school’s early hours, hence, the late arrival incidents. This report is a mistake of fact as you have not in any way neglected your child.
You did not act willfully. Your actions need to have been willful or on purpose for you to be criminally liable for child neglect. In some cases, as a defendant, you may not have realized that you were required to provide care for the minor. For example, a divorced parent who has no custody rights over his/her child may unintentionally fail to know if and when the minor needs emergency medical care. If the parent can prove that his/her failure to provide care is not willful, then the court should drop the child neglect charges.
Another example may be of a man who briefly dates a woman. Following their break-up, the woman realizes she is pregnant but chooses not to tell him. The man moves to another town and does not know that he is a father, until three years later when the woman becomes a drug addict and can no longer take care of the child. Consequently, the man faces child neglect accusations. While as a biological parent, the man has a legal obligation to provide necessary care to the child, his failure to do so was not willful. He honestly did not know that he was a parent to the child; hence his acts of omission are justifiable under the law.
You could not afford to provide the child’s necessities. Through no fault of your own, you may find yourself unable to cater for all of the child's needs. For example, despite your best efforts, you cannot find a job; hence, you and your child end up homeless. Similarly, your child could require some form of specialized medical care that is above your financial means. Also, you could have been seriously ill or disabled at the time of the alleged neglect; hence you were unable to care for your child. The law can consider this situation and other similar situations as a lawful excuse. However, for the defense to be successful, you will be required to convince the prosecution that you did your best but still could not afford to provide care.
For example, after losing their job, a single parent is left with no means to provide necessities for their child. She tirelessly looks for employment and even applies for state aid with no success. Such a parent cannot be prosecuted for violating PC 270 since their failure to provide care is not on purpose, hence it is legally excusable.
Contact a Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me
California takes very seriously all offenses that threaten the safety and well-being of children, including child neglect. Therefore, not only is a child neglect charge aggressively pursued by prosecutors, but it also attracts stiff penalties. In addition to the sanctions, the charge may have long-lasting collateral consequences, including a broken relationship with your child. Considering these consequences and the fact that the state has criminalized child neglect under Penal Code section 270 PC, it is crucial to have a criminal defense attorney who understands the complexity and sensitivity of child neglect accusations. If you are in Los Angeles and are facing child neglect accusations, our attorneys at The LA Criminal Defense Law Firm can help you get the best possible outcome for your case. We are not only skilled but also have experience defending child neglect and related matters. Contact our Los Angeles criminal attorney at 310-935-1675 for more information about our services.