There are many types of child abuse charges in California. While most people would assume child abuse would be the most common charge, in fact, child endangerment charges, filed under 273(a) (PC), are the most commonly filed of these charges because they are the easiest to prove. These serious crimes can result in your facing incarceration and losing custody of your son or daughter. If you are suspected of child abuse of any kind, please contact San Diego criminal defense attorney Peter M. Liss.
What is Child Endangerment in California?
Child endangerment is defined under California Penal Code section 273(a) PC. It occurs when a child is exposed to unjustifiable danger, mental suffering, or physical pain, even if the minor experiences no actual mental suffering or physical pain. While most people accused of this crime are parents, anyone with a child in their care can face these charges, including daycare workers, teachers, babysitters, and more.
Examples of child endangerment include:
- minors being traumatized by watching domestic violence inflicted on one parent by another, even if the children themselves are never harmed
- parents refusing to obtain necessary medical treatment for their child
- a caregiver leaving a sharp knife in easy reach of a toddler
- a parent hiring a known convicted child molester as a babysitter
- a coach forcing a child to run long distances on a hot summer day
- caretakers using unjustifiable corporal punishment on a child
- a legal guardian driving drunk with a minor under 14 in the car
How Does California Law Define Child Abuse?
It is defined under California Penal Code section 273(d) (PC) as the willful infliction of cruel or inhuman corporal punishment or an injury causing a traumatic condition on a child. In terms of using violence on a child, this charge differs from 273(a) (PC) in that child endangerment involves simply exposing a child to unjustifiable suffering, danger, or pain. In contrast, abuse charges require the prosecutors to prove the punishment was “cruel or inhuman” or caused a traumatic injury. Because child endangerment charges are much easier to prove than abuse, but the sentence is the same for both offenses, San Diego prosecutors tend to file these charges far more.
Is Spanking a Crime in California?
It is legal to spank your child in California, but it is illegal to expose a child to unjustifiable pain, suffering, or danger, to use “cruel or inhuman corporal punishment,” or to cause “traumatic” injury. While a parent’s right to discipline is vaguely defined under the law, the courts typically hold that punching, kicking, burning, slapping, and choking are all illegal. Hitting with a belt and spanking all fall under a legal grey area, but if any of these activities result in a severe injury, they may result in abuse charges. To be considered an appropriate form of punishment, spankings must be performed for disciplinary purposes and not be excessive given the circumstances.
For example, spanking a 12-year-old could be defensible under the law if he broke a television by throwing a ball in the house after already being told not to do so. On the other hand, spanking a 2-year-old for urinating in her pants would not be legal under California law.
Child Abuse and Endangerment Penalties Under 273 (PC)
The seriousness of child endangerment cases varies based on whether or not the child was at risk of death or great bodily harm. In cases where death or great bodily harm was unlikely, child endangerment in California will be charged as a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year of jail time. When great bodily harm or death was likely, child endangerment can be either a misdemeanor, punishable by one year in jail, or a felony, punishable by up to 6 years in state prison and a fine of $10,000. Most offenders must also take a child abuser’s treatment program.
In many cases, because the determination of what is likely to cause great bodily harm is very subjective, your San Diego child endangerment lawyer may be able to sway the prosecutor to charge the crime as a misdemeanor.
While less commonly charged than endangerment, child abuse can be filed as a misdemeanor or a felony, and the penalties are the same as they are for child endangerment.
For both of these charges, a felony conviction where the child suffered great bodily injury can also count as a strike under the state’s three strikes law.
Additionally, not only do you face arrest and prosecution for these accusations, but Child Protective Services (CPS) will also investigate and may remove your child from the home. This investigation by CPS is separate from the criminal investigation and proceedings. The criminal court may also bar you from seeing your child.
Fighting the Charges with a San Diego Child Endangerment Attorney
Just as it can be subjective to say that something is likely to cause great bodily harm, saying that a child was in danger or likely to suffer unjustifiable physical or mental harm is largely a matter of debate. These definitions are somewhat subjective, so criminal defense lawyers frequently have success arguing that the parent never put the child in actual or unjustifiable danger.
Another strong defense is to argue that the defendant’s behavior was not willful. If the endangerment was a result of an accident, it is not covered by this law —for example, if you were cutting tomatoes when your partner dropped off your toddler, and you simply forgot to put the knife away, you can’t be charged for leaving your toddler with the sharp knife.
One of the biggest problems with child abuse cases is that well-meaning people often misinterpret innocent occurrences as signs of abuse. Some people, such as therapists and teachers, are legally required to report symptoms of abuse, so they must report certain types of injuries even if you have a valid excuse for them.
For example, if a child has a black eye from getting hit by a baseball, many people will take it as a sign that a parent hit them. Because children often try to cover for their parents in child abuse situations, mandated reporters and law enforcement agents may not believe that an accident caused the injury. Fortunately, the law requires the prosecution to prove you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, so if there is insufficient proof that you abused your child, your San Diego criminal defense attorney may be able to have the charges against you dropped.
Other defenses may include:
- improper evidence collection
- false accusations
- the legal discipline of a child
- not being responsible for the child
- not being the person who caused the child to suffer.
You can also help fight a pending child endangerment charge under 273(a) (PC) by getting counseling or taking parenting classes.
Keep in mind that what you say can be used against you though, so refuse to speak with police without your San Diego child endangerment lawyer present, or you may say something that shows you meant to punish your child in an unreasonable manner.
A good example of saying something that could harm your defense would be arguing that you were only following the tenants of your religion. While California does allow religious exemptions to child abuse and endangerment cases (including those that involve the denial of care to children who need medical treatment), these exemptions only apply in misdemeanor cases. You cannot plead a religious defense if you are charged with a felony, and attempting to do so will only be used as evidence against you.
Related Criminal Charges
Other activities that people commonly consider abuse may instead be charged as child neglect, manslaughter, or sex crimes against a child. It is common for those accused of one of these crimes to be charged with other related charges, so if you have been accused of any form of child abuse, be sure to speak with a skilled criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.
Call a Child Abuse Attorney Today
If you have been charged with child abuse or endangerment, contact a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible, even if you believe the situation will be resolved before charges are pressed. If you have any questions or are ready to schedule a free consultation with Peter M. Liss, please call (760) 643-4050 or (858) 486-3024.