Every September, millions of children return to school in California. For most families, this is a busy but exciting time. However, for some, it can be the beginning of a legal nightmare. Child abuse allegations rise every fall, and they can tear families apart.
If you have been charged with abuse or neglect after the school year started, you’re not alone. You have options to protect yourself and your family from the impacts of a potential conviction. Here’s why child abuse charges spike when the school year starts, what constitutes criminal abuse and neglect, and what you can do to defend yourself against your charges.
Why Do Child Abuse Allegations Rise in the Fall?
Abuse is not restricted to the cooler months. In fact, child abuse appears to occur more often in the summer months. So why do allegations go up in September?
The trends in abuse and related charges are based on where kids spend their time. During the summer, children spend significantly more time at home or with immediate relatives than at school or daycare. As a result, they are in closer contact with the people who are statistically most likely to hurt them, making harm more likely. Furthermore, they have less contact with unrelated adults who could identify and step in to stop abusive or neglectful behavior.
In contrast, when kids return to school, they are suddenly surrounded by dozens of teachers and staff who are mandatory reporters. These adults are legally obligated to report “known or reasonably suspected” child abuse to local law enforcement and the county welfare agency “immediately, or as soon as is practicably possible.” If a mandatory reporter so much as suspects a minor is being abused, they must file a report or face jail time. As such, investigations for potentially abusive environments spike once kids are back in the classroom.
However, mandatory reporters aren’t the only reason for the rise in abuse charges. The school year is a common time for parents to swap their custody schedules. If the parent who has the kids during the summer doesn’t want to give them up, they may make false abuse allegations against the other person, potentially leading to criminal charges.
What Constitutes Criminal Child Abuse or Neglect?
The California Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act identifies a variety of criminal acts that may be grounds for a mandatory reporter to notify law enforcement, including:
- Willfully causing physical injury or death: California defines criminal child abuse as “cruel or inhuman corporal punishment or an injury resulting in a traumatic condition.” This includes hitting, slapping, pushing, burning, or otherwise assaulting the minor in a way that leaves a physical mark. While corporal punishment is legal, if it leaves a lasting mark, it is likely against the law.
- Committing sexual abuse: Any adult who has sexual contact or interactions with a minor commits criminal sexual abuse in California, regardless of the minor’s age or consent. The adult does not even need to touch the minor in certain cases. Multiple charges may apply, ranging from coercion and enticement of a minor to possession or creation of child pornography to continuous sexual abuse of a child.
- Endangering the child: It is unlawful to put children in situations that unjustifiably threaten their health, safety, and wellbeing. Child endangerment laws are purposefully broad and cover situations ranging from leaving firearms unsecured in your home to driving drunk with children in the car to refusing to get medical treatment for a minor’s serious health condition.
- Neglecting the child’s health or welfare: Parents and guardians can be charged with child neglect if they willfully fail to provide their children with necessities like food, clothing, and shelter when they have the resources to do so.
Penalties for Abuse Convictions
The specific penalties for abusing and neglecting children depend on the charges. For example, neglect is a misdemeanor subject to probation or up to one year in prison. Meanwhile, almost all forms of sexual abuse of a minor are considered felonies, carrying multiple years in prison and potentially lifetime placement on the sex offender registry. Physical abuse and endangerment may be a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the circumstances, with penalties that vary accordingly.
However, there are a few penalties and consequences that are consistent across these offenses:
- Having an abuse conviction on record may cause you to lose custody and visitation rights to your children.
- Abuse and domestic violence convictions often prevent you from working in industries like education, healthcare, and childcare.
- Abuse convictions may appear on housing background checks, preventing you from living in certain areas.
In other words, you could lose the right to raise your kids, lose your career, and even your home because of a conviction.
Defending Against Child Abuse Charges in California
Abuse, neglect, and endangerment charges are more common in September, but you have options to defend yourself. You can work with an experienced defense attorney to defend yourself with arguments such as:
- Age of the alleged victim: Child-related offenses can only be committed against minors, so the charges are invalid if the victim was a legal adult at the time.
- False allegations: If you can prove someone has falsely accused you, the charges are invalid and should be dropped.
- Lack of willful acts: Abuse and neglect must be purposeful. If you accidentally injure a minor, you have not abused them. Similarly, if you cannot afford to buy food for anyone, you are not committing criminal neglect by failing to feed your child.
- Lack of responsibility: If you are not legally responsible for a child’s health or wellbeing, you cannot commit neglect or endangerment.
California applies heavy penalties to criminal offenses related to children. If you’ve been charged with child abuse or neglect, you should reach out to the Law Offices of M. Gabriela Guraiib today. Our experienced criminal defense attorneys are prepared to defend you against these charges and help you keep your family together.