Child Endangerment Laws, Charges, and Cases

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 What is Child Endangerment?

The term, “child endangerment,” refers to a criminal act that occurs when a person subjects a minor child to a dangerous situation wherein the child is likely to experience serious harm or even death. The crime of child endangerment is often charged in connection with other crimes, such as assault, illegal drug use, and/or driving under the influence (“DUI”).

A person does not necessarily need to be the child’s parent in order to be charged with child endangerment. A person may face child endangerment charges when they have assumed responsibility for the well-being and to look after a child, but fail to live up to this duty by knowingly or deliberately placing the child in harm’s way. In general, there are many types of activities that may qualify as a form of child endangerment.

In addition, the laws and resulting punishment for being convicted on child endangerment charges will vary from state to state. Regardless of where a person is charged, however, child endangerment is considered a very serious offense. Depending on the activity and on the laws of the jurisdiction in which the activity occurred, child endangerment may be classified as either a misdemeanor or a felony offense.

This means that a prison or jail sentence can range from anywhere between a few months to several years. As with other crimes, the facts and circumstances surrounding a particular case will need to be taken into account. Accordingly, the more harm that is done to the child and the more extreme the facts of a specific case are, the more likely that a convicted defendant will receive a harsher punishment.

This general principle is especially true in cases where a court determines that the risk to a minor child is current or still ongoing. In cases where a minor child’s parents are the ones convicted of child endangerment, the parents may stand to lose the parental rights they have over their child in addition to the other penalties discussed.

What are Examples of Child Endangerment?

Whether a person has engaged in an activity with a child that constitutes child endangerment will be contingent on the laws of a particular state, including how a state law defines the term, “child.” For instance, some states no longer consider a minor to be a child once they reach the age of 16, while other states do not consider a child to be an adult until they reach the age of majority, which is typically 18.

The following are some common examples of the types of activities that generally qualify as criminal child endangerment in many states:

  • Abandoning a child without adult supervision in an unsafe neighborhood or venue;
  • Leaving a child alone in a motor vehicle (especially, when weather conditions are very hot or humid);
  • Failing to look after a child due to being under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol;
  • Operating a motor vehicle with a child while a person is intoxicated or under the influence of illegal or controlled substances;
  • Leaving a child with someone who is known to abuse or assault them;
  • Serving alcohol to a minor or to an underage driver;
  • Allowing a young child to remain in a home where no one is in charge or in the care of another minor or young child;
  • Manufacturing or making drugs in a home where a minor child resides;
  • Engaging in sexual conduct in front of a child;
  • Keeping weapons in a household with children and storing the weapons where a child can easily access them;
  • Failing to report known or suspected child abuse; and/or
  • Ignoring safety requirements for a car seat or booster seat that is being used by a child.

Thus, as is evident from the above examples, child endangerment charges can result not only from an adult’s actions, but also from an adult’s failure to take some kind of preventive action. For example, if the child’s caregiver deliberately stops a child from taking their prescribed medication, then this may be considered an act that would constitute child endangerment.

How Does Child Endangerment Relate to DUI Charges?

As previously mentioned, depending on the state, child endangerment may exist as a separate crime or it may be charged in conjunction with another criminal offense, such as child abuse or driving while intoxicated.

In cases where the crime of child endangerment involves a DUI charge, this can happen when a person is pulled over while driving under the influence with a minor child in their vehicle. In states that recognize child endangerment as a separate offense, a person can be charged with two crimes: once for child endangerment and once for a DUI.

In states that have adopted a law that merges these two acts into a single criminal offense, a person can be charged with the crime of DUI child endangerment. The fact that a child was endangered because a person drove a vehicle under the influence while a child was riding with them, only serves to escalate the penalties for a standard DUI charge.

Thus, the consequences for DUI child endangerment are much more serious than those issued for a regular DUI offense. Again, while the laws and penalties will vary by state, a person could be charged with a felony, meaning larger criminal fines and longer prison sentences.

What is Child Endangerment with Drug Paraphernalia?

It is generally considered to be child endangerment when a supervising adult exposes a child to any aspect of drug use, manufacture, possession, or distribution, including accessories or equipment to make or take drugs like drug paraphernalia.

As such, if a parent is charged with selling or manufacturing drugs in a house where a child lives, then the prosecutor may raise the issue of child endangerment as well. In such a case, the court will likely factor in the seriousness of the criminal charges as well as the future welfare and best interests of the child.

Similar to DUI child endangerment, this factor can also affect the type of punishment that a defendant receives for being convicted of child endangerment with drug paraphernalia.

What Must Be Shown to Prove Child Endangerment?

The elements of proof for this crime will vary in accordance with state law. Generally speaking, however, in order to prove the crime of child endangerment, the prosecution must be able to demonstrate the following:

  • That the defendant knowingly or intentionally acted in a way (or failed to act in a way) that was likely to injure a child’s physical, moral, or mental well-being;
  • That the action (or lack of action) placed the child in imminent danger of serious harm or death;
  • That the child was of the age that falls under a state’s child endangerment statute or similar law; and/or
  • That the defendant had assumed responsibility for the child and/or the children.

Additionally, the child does not need to suffer actual harm to prove child endangerment. It is enough to show that the defendant was the one who placed the child in harm’s way. Again, the more outrageous the circumstances and whether the child was injured, may raise or lower the degree of the crime, which in turn, will dictate the defendant’s punishment.

Are there Defenses to Charges of Child Endangerment?

Some potential defenses that a person may be able to raise against charges of child endangerment include the following:

  • That the defendant did not or could not have known that their actions would endanger or injure the child;
  • That the results of their actions were not intended, could not reasonably be predicted, or were not of the kind that would normally occur in such instances;
  • That the defendant did not in fact commit the crime;
  • That the prosecutor lacked evidence or failed to prove the elements of criminal child endangerment; and/or
  • That the defendant’s actions were accidental and not reckless, intentional, or willfully performed.

As with all other items discussed within this article, the defenses that a defendant can raise against charges of child endangerment will depend on the facts of their case as well as the laws of the jurisdiction where the acts occurred.

What Are the Penalties for Endangering a Child?

The penalties for endangering a child will depend on state laws as well as on whether the crime is being charged as a misdemeanor or a felony offense. In general, a typical penalty or sentence for child endangerment may include:

  • A prison sentence for up to one year if it is a misdemeanor offense;
  • A prison sentence for longer than one year and for up to twenty years or longer if is a felony offense;
  • Criminal fines; and
  • A criminal record.

Do I Need an Attorney If I Am Facing Charges for Child Endangerment?

As discussed above, child endangerment is a very serious crime. Therefore, if you are facing charges for criminal child endangerment, then it is strongly recommended that you hire a local criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

An experienced criminal defense attorney who practices in your area will already be familiar with the laws and procedural requirements in your state. Your attorney will be able to inform you of your rights under the law as well as whether there are any defenses you can raise against the charges.

Your attorney can also help you build and present a defensive argument, and can provide legal representation in criminal court. Additionally, your attorney can assist you in getting your charges reduced or dropped if there are alternative sentencing options available in your jurisdiction.

Finally, if your child has been endangered by another party, your attorney can recommend the best course of action and can discuss the potential outcome of pursuing that action (e.g., reporting it to law enforcement).

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