California Child Endangerment Laws

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 What Is Child Endangerment?

The term child endangerment refers to a crime in which a person places a minor child in their care in a dangerous situation. These are situations in which death or serious harm is likely to occur. Child endangerment is sometimes paired with other criminal charges, such as assault and DUI, when an adult has harmed the child for whom they are responsible.

As the adult has assumed responsibility for the child, the adult must look after the child’s well-being. If they fail to do so and place the child in harm’s way, the adult can be charged with the crime of child endangerment.

Although the laws and penalties for child endangerment can vary from state to state, it is a serious charge everywhere. The crime may be classified as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the law in the state where the crime is committed. Sentences for the crime may range from months to years; but again, the state as well as the circumstances of the case will always be taken into consideration.

Because of this, the more outrageous the circumstances of the crime, the greater the penalty is likely to be. This is particularly true in cases in which courts have considered that the risk to a child is ongoing. Parents could lose their parental rights to their children if they are convicted of child endangerment.

What Are the Three Ways California Defines Endangering Children? What Does “Willfully” Mean?

California child endangerment laws define “endangering children” according to the following three ways:

  • To allow or cause a child to suffer unjustifiable mental anguish, and/or physical pain;
  • To permit or willfully cause a child in the defendant’s care to be injured; and/or
  • To permit or willfully cause any child to be placed in an obviously dangerous situation.

According to California law, the term “willfully” is defined as doing an act on purpose, or without being forced. An act is committed willfully if the actor intended to act. It is important to note that “willfully” does not mean that the defendant intended to break the law, or cause harm to the child. “Willfully” means that the defendant had the intent to do an act that could have resulted in the child being harmed.

What “Does Dangerous Situation” Refer To?

The state of California very broadly defines a dangerous situation to include:

  • Negligently leaving any child with any person who has a history of abusive conduct;
  • Leaving any type of dangerous weapons within the presence and reach of a child; and
  • Failing to obtain necessary medical attention for an injured and/or sick child.

Is Reckless Endangerment the Same as Child Endangerment?

Simply put, no, reckless endangerment is not the same as child endangerment. State laws differ regarding what precisely constitutes reckless endangerment. Generally speaking, if a person deliberately engages in any behavior that poses a serious or substantial risk of injury to another person, they may be charged with reckless endangerment. The charge of reckless endangerment remains broad in order to cover a range of conduct that could pose significant risk to another person’s safety.

In order to establish a reckless endangerment charge, it must be proven that the defendant intended to commit the act. Additionally, it must be proven that the defendant knew or should have known of the risks associated with their actions. Those actions must exceed negligent or accidental conduct, which poses a risk of harm that is itself unreasonable.

It is not necessary to prove that the defendant intended their actions to cause harm to anyone else, or that they intended to cause the specific type of harm that resulted from their actions. The intent to act without regarding the associated risks is generally sufficient to prove reckless endangerment. Some of the most common examples of conduct that may lead to reckless endangerment charges include:

  • Serving alcohol to a minor;
  • Driving while intoxicated with a child in the vehicle;
  • Driving carelessly;
  • Removing a stop sign from a busy intersection; and
  • Throwing rocks off of a bridge at passing vehicles.

Is Child Endangerment a Felony in California?

In California, child endangerment is considered to be a “wobbler”. A wobbler is a crime that may be punished as either a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the specific circumstances of the crime. The concept of a wobbler is intended to give the legal system some flexibility in charging and punishing crimes. Although the charges may be considered a felony crime, there are commonly unique circumstances that will still allow for justice by reducing the charge to a misdemeanor.

Only specific criminal offenses may be considered wobblers; especially serious crimes, such as murder, do not qualify. Additionally, wobblers only apply to specific offenders, such as:

  • First time offenders;
  • Minors; and
  • Any situation in which the defendant was clearly hindered or altered in some way that reduces the severity of their intent to commit the crime.

Child endangerment charges in California will be classified depending on surrounding circumstances. Being charged with a felony is contingent upon great bodily harm; meaning, substantial or significant injuries, or death, occurred as a result of the endangerment.

The punishment for felony child endangerment in California ranges from two to six years spent in prison. A defendant may be charged with misdemeanor child endangerment if the child does not experience great bodily harm or death. Misdemeanor child endangerment in California is punishable by up to one year spent in jail.

What Are Some Examples of Child Endangerment in California?

Generally speaking, the following are some examples of activities that could be classified as child endangerment:

  • Leaving a child unsupervised in an unsafe neighborhood or area;
  • Failing to supervise a child due to alcohol or drug intoxication;
  • Leaving a child alone in a vehicle, especially when the weather is very hot;
  • Leaving a child with a known abuser;
  • Driving while intoxicated, or under the influence of various substances, with a child in the vehicle;
  • Having accessible weapons in the home;
  • Leaving a young child unsupervised or in the care of another young child;
  • Manufacturing drugs in the home in which a child lives;
  • Failing to report suspected child abuse;
  • Engaging in sexual activity in front of a child; and
  • Failing to observe proper vehicle safety for a child using car seats or booster seats

Child endangerment can result not only from an adult’s actions, but from their failure to act. An example of this would be if a caregiver intentionally failed to administer necessary medication to a child. This could be considered child endangerment.

Some common defenses raised by someone who has been charged with child endangerment include:

  • Questioning whether the child was actually in imminent danger;
  • Questioning the relationship between the adult and the child, and whether the adult had actually assumed the role of their caregiver; and/or
  • Contributory negligence by the child’s parent, or legal guardian, who had knowledge that should have prevented them leaving their child with the adult being charged with endangerment.

Do I Need a Lawyer to Represent Me Regarding a Child Endangerment Charge?

If you are facing child endangerment charges, you should immediately consult with a skilled and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney. An experienced and local California criminal lawyer will be most aware of local laws that will affect your case, as well as any potential defenses that could apply based on your circumstances. Additionally, an attorney will also represent you in court as needed and ensure that your rights are protected.

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