Child Abuse Penalties and Sentencing

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

Child abuse is one of the more heinous of crimes because it involves harming some of the most vulnerable people in society. This social attitude is reflected in the severity of punishments for many types of offenses that involve children. However, there are also child abuse penalties and sentencing which aren't as harsh depending on the type of abuse involved. For example, although neglecting a child is still a serious matter, it may not be punished the same as physical abuse of a child.

The wide range of child abuse penalties and sentencing depend on several factors, such as:

  • The state where the abuse took place;
  • The age of the child;
  • Whether the offense involved sexual abuse;
  • Whether the child was physically or mentally injured; and
  • The criminal history of the offender.

Child abuse and neglect cases can be difficult for everyone involved, which is unfortunately one reason why some cases go unreported. After all, child abuse and the resulting penalties and sentencing, especially when the abuse occurs within a family, have the potential to cause major disruptions to social relationships. When coupled with the fact that these cases can be highly publicized and carry a social stigma, many family members will avoid reporting and try to deal with the problem on their own. The danger, of course, is the ongoing risk to the child involved.

Child Abuse Penalties: Charges, Pleas, and Sentences

In most states, child abuse may be charged as either a felony or a less serious offense, depending on the circumstances. The most severe cases can carry harsh child abuse sentences, including felony lifetime sentences, while the least serious cases are considered gross misdemeanors which could potentially result in no prison time. Punishment will typically be more severe if the offender has a prior record of criminal child abuse activity and greatly reduced if there is no prior record.

For sentencing purposes, a person charged with child abuse may enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest. In a large number of cases, sentencing can include probation or a prison term of up to five years. Sentencing in more serious cases may include a longer prison term.

Other possible penalties and/or consequences can include:

  • Lifetime requirement to register as a child sexual offender
  • Termination of parental rights
  • Ruined reputation
  • Criminal record
  • Supervised access to the child
  • Physical or actual loss and enjoyment of a child
  • Continual involvement with a child protective services agency

Child Abuse Penalties: Failure to Report

People who fail to report child abuse or neglect can also face penalties and consequences in states with mandatory reporting laws. These laws typically apply only to certain individuals who are in a position to discover child abuse. This can include teachers, medical professionals or law enforcement, among others.

In states with mandatory reporting laws, those subject to the reporting requirements must report cases of suspected child abuse through a hotline or law enforcement agency. Failure to do so in a timely manner is considered a misdemeanor in most states and can result in fines, jail time, or both.

Questions about Child Abuse Penalties and Sentencing? See an Attorney

As with the various forms of child abuse, there is also a spectrum of penalties for child abuse crimes which will depend on the specific facts of your case. That's why it's so important to enlist the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney near you if you're facing allegations of child abuse.

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