What is Child Abandonment?

Child Abandonment Laws in the United States

More than 7,000 American children are abandoned each year. These abandoned children often have higher risks of emotional disorders, low self-esteem and other issues.

The crime of child abandonment has a very broad definition. It can include different acts that vary by state. Child abandonment generally occurs when a parent or guardian either fails to provide necessary care for their child or when they entirely desert a child without regard for their welfare and safety and with no intent to return for them.

While some states have laws specifically denoting the crime of child abandonment, many states group child abandonment together with other child abuse laws.

Physical and Emotional Child Abandonment

Criminal child abandonment is typically physical. In New York it involves a parent physically leaving a child alone without the intent to return. This might include leaving an infant on a doorstep or on the side of a road.

Emotional abandonment, however, can also be considered a crime. In Florida, this involves failure to provide for the needs of a child even while being physically present. An example might involve parents who do not provide their children with necessary shelter, medical care or clothing.

Other examples of child abandonment might include:

  • Leaving a child in another person's care without provisions to care for them
  • Failing to maintain regular visitation with the child for six months
  • Failing to respond to child custody notices or child protective notices
  • Leaving a child at home alone for long enough that harm may result

Leaving Children at Home Alone

Some states offer specific guidelines for the ages at which a child can be left alone and for how long. In Maryland, for example, a child cannot be alone at home until the age of eight. In Illinois, however, it is age 14.

In other states, the legality of leaving a child at home alone depends on factors such as the child’s maturity, the safety of the surrounding areas and the child’s sense of safety. These states often still provide guidelines for determining whether a child is mature enough and how long they can be safely left alone.

Mandatory Reporting of Child Abandonment

In states that group child abandonment with child abuse, certain individuals may be required to report when they see signs of child abandonment. In some states, these individuals might include:

  • Teachers
  • Medical professionals
  • Counselors and therapists
  • Child care providers
  • Social workers

Workers providing organized activities for children

In other states, anyone over the age of 18 who notices signs of child abandonment may be required to report it. Those reporting child abandonment or abuse do not need to provide proof of the offense, but they are required to report the circumstances and facts that led them to believe abuse was taking place.

Penalties for Child Abandonment

Penalties for child abandonment vary from state to state and depend on whether the state considers the offense a felony or a misdemeanor.

In California, child abandonment or neglect is in some cases considered a misdemeanor, and convictions result in up to a year of county jail time, a $2,000 fine or both. More serious cases could be deemed felonies, and convictions could bring up to as many as six years in a California state prison.

In Oregon, abandonment of a child under the age of 15 is considered a Class C felony, and convictions can be a sentence of up to five years in prison, a fine up to $125,000 or both.

Safe Haven Laws

Many states have passed Safe Haven laws (or Baby Moses laws). These statutes allow parents to abandon infants anonymously in designated safe locations without facing child abandonment charges. These laws vary by state and may specify a maximum age for the infant and which locations are considered safe for this purpose. The locations often include hospitals, churches, fire stations and police stations.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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