Child Abandonment Laws

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 What is Child Abandonment?

Child abandonment occurs when a parent, guardian, or person in charge of a child deserts a child without regard for the child’s physical health, safety, or welfare and abandons the child wholly. Sometimes, it is abandonment when a parent, guardian, or caregiver fails to provide necessary care for a child for whom they are responsible.

Abandonment typically refers to a parent’s choice to withhold a child’s physical, emotional, and financial support. In other words, abandonment occurs when the parent fails to fulfill their parental responsibilities and chooses not to have contact with their child.

While abandoning a child involves physical abandonment, it may also include extreme cases of emotional abandonment, such as when a “workaholic” parent offers little or no physical contact or emotional support or when a parent who is an addict spends large portions of the day ignoring the child, failing to provide the necessary care.

Most states designate a time frame for considering the parent’s behavior. For example, according to Georgia law, when a parent or legal guardian does not furnish sufficient food, clothing, or shelter for the needs of a minor child for a consecutive 30-day period, leaving them in a dependent condition, they have committed child abandonment.

What Are Some Examples of Child Abandonment?

“Child abandonment” is broadly categorized and used to describe various behaviors. Specific examples of abandonment vary, especially since each state has its own set of laws, and there are differences among them. Common actions that may lead to charges include:

  • Leaving a child with another person without providing for the child’s financial support and without meaningful communication with the child
  • Making only minimal efforts to support and communicate with the child
  • Failing to make efforts to meet with the child during scheduled visitation times
  • Failing to participate in a plan or program designed to reunite the parent with the child
  • Abandoning an infant or child on a doorstep, dumpster, street, etc. Some states do have safe haven laws allowing parents to safely give up their baby at a hospital, fire station, and other designated safe location
  • Being absent from the home for a long enough time that it created a substantial risk of serious harm to the child left behind
  • Failing to respond to notice of child protective proceedings
  • Being unwilling to provide care, support, or supervision for the child

Leaving a Child at Home Alone

While there are times when it’s necessary to leave a child at home alone, it can be considered child abandonment, depending on such things as the child’s age and the length of time they were left alone. Some states offer age guidelines to help parents avoid accidentally committing child abandonment.

Some states provide specific laws or regulations about the legal age to leave a child home alone. Most states, however, do not. Nevertheless, some guidelines have been provided by a collaboration of states and the Department of Health and Human Services to assist parents in deciding when to leave their child home alone. These guidelines include:

  • A child aged 7 and under cannot be left alone at home for any period. This also includes leaving the child unattended in the car, backyard, or playground
  • A child ages 8 to 10 should be home alone only during daylight or early morning hours, for no longer than 1 ½ hours
  • A child ages 11 to 12 can be left alone during the day for up to 3 hours, but not late at night
  • A child ages 13 to 15 is permitted to be left unsupervised, but not overnight
  • A child ages 16 to 17 can be left unsupervised for up to 2 days

What are the Consequences of Child Abandonment?

The laws on punishment for child abandonment vary from state to state. Many states include deserting a child within their child abuse laws and vice versa, while some states have laws specifically targeting the act of abandoning a child.

Child abandonment is classified as a misdemeanor in some states and a felony in others. (A misdemeanor is a crime that cannot be punished by more than a year in jail; a felony is a crime that will be punished with more than a year of prison time.) So, depending on where one lives, the consequences could be vastly different. Penalties can range from monetary fines to jail time. Abandoning a child under one year of age is usually a felony. A conviction for this crime may result in 10 to 25 years of incarceration.

One who abandons a child is also at risk of losing parental or visitation rights in most states. Parental rights are terminated when the court concludes that the parent is unfit. If both parents lose their parental rights, the child will become a ward of the state and will be placed in foster care or a group home.

Sometimes child abandonment cases also involve child neglect. Child neglect is a specific type of child abuse wherein the parent, guardian, or custodian of a child fails to provide for the child’s basic physical or emotional needs. It involves the unwillingness or inability of the parent to provide for the child’s basic needs, such as:

  • Food
  • Clothing
  • Shelter
  • Medical care
  • Emotional support
  • Any other needs

Are there any Defenses for Child Abandonment?

Each situation is reviewed by the court on an individual basis to determine whether or not there is a valid defense.
A parent who uses their state’s “safe haven” laws and leaves the child with a first responder will not be prosecuted for child abandonment. The use of safe haven procedures is a defense to a charge of child abandonment.

If a parent claims that a father abandoned their child, but the father was never made aware of the child’s existence, this may give rise to a valid defense. As with other defenses, the court considers many factors to determine the validity of the defense claim.

The court will review the entire matter, including any possible defenses, and determine the best scenario for the child or children involved. A court’s priority is to find what is in the best interest of the child or children.

Should I Speak to an Attorney Regarding a Child Abandonment Issue?

It is important to note that in emergencies where a child may be in immediate danger, local authorities should be called as soon as possible to assist the child.

Some abandonment cases aren’t always clear and can fall into a gray area of the law. If you are facing child abandonment charges, consult a criminal defense lawyer. The lawyer may be able to reduce or lessen the severity of the penalties in your case, may be able to have felony charges reduced to a misdemeanor, and may be able to have the case dismissed altogether. Take the first step by contacting an experienced criminal law attorney in your area.

As mentioned above, the laws surrounding child abandonment laws differ depending on where one lives. Child abandonment charges can be complex and overlap with other legal areas. Speaking to a lawyer familiar with the specifics of your state’s local rules and regulations is a good idea.

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