Child abandonment occurs when a parent, guardian, or person in charge of a child either deserts a child without any regard for the child's physical health, safety or welfare and with the intention of wholly abandoning the child, or in some instances, fails to provide necessary care for a child living under their roof.
While abandoning a child typically involves physical abandonment -- such as leaving a child at a stranger's doorstep when no one is home -- it may also include extreme cases of emotional abandonment -- such as when a "work-a-holic" parent offers little or no physical contact or emotional support over long periods of time.
Unfortunately, abandoned children (also called "foundlings") who do not get their needs met often grow up with low self-esteem, emotional dependency, helplessness, and other issues.
A person charged with deserting a child may face felony or misdemeanor penalties and other consequences.
What Constitutes Child Abandonment?
The term "child abandonment" is broadly categorized and used to describe a variety of behaviors. Specific examples of abandonment vary, but common actions that may lead to charges include:
- Leaving a child with another person without provision for the child's support and without meaningful communication with the child for a period of three months;
- Making only minimal efforts to support and communicate with a child;
- Failing for a period of at least six months to maintain regular visitation with a child;
- Failing to participate in a suitable plan or program designed to reunite the parent or guardian with a child;
- Leaving an infant on a doorstep, in trash cans and dumpsters, and on the side of the road;
- Being absent from the home for a period of time that created a substantial risk of serious harm to a child left in the home;
- Failing to respond to notice of child protective proceedings; or
- Being unwilling to provide care, support, or supervision for the child.
Child Abandonment Laws
The laws vary from state to state. Many states include deserting a child within its child abuse laws and vice versa, while some states have laws specifically targeting the act of abandoning a child.
Most states classify abandonment as a felony, which may include situations where a parent or guardian physically abandons a child in any place with the intent of relinquishing all rights and responsibilities to the child.
Other states classify the desertion of a child as a misdemeanor (with lesser penalties), including situations that involve non-physical acts of abandonment.
In general, child abandonment occurs when a parent, guardian, or other person has physical custody or control of a child and, when acting without regard for the mental or physical health, safety, or welfare of the child:
- Knowing leaves a child (typically under the age of 13) without supervision by a responsible person (typically over the age of 14); or
- Fails to maintain contact with the child or provide reasonable support for a specified period of time.
In the criminal context, child desertion is defined as physically abandoning a child, but may also include emotional abandonment such as failing to provide basic needs to a child. For example, in some states, a parent may be guilty of abandonment if they fail to provide necessary clothing, food, shelter or medical care for their child. In other states, however, parents are only punished for deserting a child with the intent to abandon the child.
Mandatory Reporting Laws
Because abandoning a child is considered child abuse in some states, certain people may be required to report known or suspected cases of child abandonment to the proper authorities. Check your state's child abuse laws to see if you qualify as a "mandatory reporter."
Safe Haven Law Exception
Most jurisdictions have exceptions to child abandonment in the form of safe haven laws. Safe Haven Laws allow mothers to safely abandon their newborn infants in safe locations - such as churches, hospitals, and fire stations - without fear of being charged with the crime of child abandonment.
Leaving a Child at Home Alone
While it's necessary in some instances to leave a child at home alone, states typically offer age guidelines to help parents avoid abandonment charges. Under some state statutes, leaving a child at home alone may constitute child abandonment, depending on a number of factors, including the age of the child, duration of time the child was left without adult supervision, and economic hardship or illness of the parent or guardian. Read tips on leaving a child home alone to better understand how to fulfill your obligations.
Child Abandonment Penalties and Punishment
Depending on the state, a person charged with criminal child abandonment faces a wide range of penalties and sentencing options, depending on whether the state makes it a felony or misdemeanor. A court will take the factors listed above into consideration - but the penalties may include fines, termination of parental rights, supervised access to the child, and jail time.
In addition, a person may face reckless abandonment charges of a greater penalty if a child dies as a result of the desertion.
How Can You Protect Yourself and Your Loved Ones? Call a Defense Attorney Today
Some cases of abandonment aren't always clear and can fall into a gray area of the law. If you're facing child abandonment charges, you should consult with a criminal defense lawyer in your area who may be able to reduce or lessen the severity of penalties in your case or get it dismissed altogether. Take the first step by contacting an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area.