If convicted, your sentence could range from a hefty fine for a misdemeanor to six years in state prison for a felony. But you could even get 25-years-to-life if you have prior convictions.
To make matters worse, the California child abuse laws are incredibly complex and hard to navigate. That’s why we decided to put together a comprehensive guide to help you understand the charges you’re facing, the consequences of a conviction, and potential defense strategies.
Types of Child Neglect and Child Abuse Charges in California
Before we get into specifics about the California child abuse laws, it’s important to clarify what the California Penal Code (CPC) defines as child abuse:
- Sexual abuse: Sexual activities with a child, including indecent exposure, fondling, molestation, rape, and incest.
- Emotional abuse: Nonphysical mistreatment that results in disturbed behavior (e.g., depression or extreme anxiety).
- Physical abuse: Willful bodily injury, including unjustifiable punishment, corporal punishment, and cruelty.
- Exploitation: Forcing or coercing a child into doing something that’s beyond their capabilities, illegal, or degrading.
Under California law, child neglect is a different offense than child abuse. There are two severity levels:
- General neglect: A parent, guardian, or caregiver negligently fails to provide adequate food, shelter, clothing, or supervision, but it doesn’t result in physical injury.
- Severe neglect: When general neglect leads to physical injury or endangers the child’s health (e.g., severe malnutrition).
Know that you can also be charged with child endangerment when charged with any of these offenses.
California Child Abuse Laws
Now that you have a general idea of the forms of child abuse contemplated in California law, let’s go over the specific child abuse and child neglect laws in the state detailed in CPC 273d and CPC 270, respectively.
Penal Code 273d PC — Child Abuse & Physical Punishment
According to CPC 273d, these are the premises for a child abuse conviction:
- The victim must be under 18 years old.
- You acted willfully — it must be proven that you intended to cause injury.
- You inflicted cruel physical punishment and/or injury on the child.
- A traumatic physical condition resulted from that punishment or injury — it must be proven that the physical force you used was the cause of the wound(s) or other injuries.
- You weren’t reasonably disciplining the child.
Is Spanking a Child Considered Child Abuse in California?
No, spanking a child isn’t considered child abuse in the state. Under California law, parents can legally discipline their children with physical force, including with objects.
However, an unreasonably cruel punishment that results in a traumatic physical condition is child abuse.
For instance, repeatedly hitting a child with significant force and bruising them because they didn’t want to finish their dinner wouldn’t be considered “reasonable disciplining.”
This is a very clear example of unreasonable punishment, but the overwhelming majority of cases aren’t as straightforward. The reality is that child abuse is one of the most complex and nuanced offenses in California law — only an experienced child abuse attorney can help you navigate these charges.
Penal Code 270 PC — Child Neglect
As stated in California PC 270, a parent is guilty of child neglect if they don’t provide adequate clothing, food, shelter, medical attendance, or other remedial care to their minor child — wilfully and without a lawful excuse.
Here are two details to keep in mind about CPC 270:
- A pregnant person or expectant person can also be charged with child neglect if they don’t fulfill their unborn fetus’ basic needs.
- A ‘parent’ is anyone responsible for the child, including biological, adoptive, or foster parents, anyone else acting as the parent, or the spouse of a pregnant person, even if they aren’t the biological parent.
Child Protective Services (CPS) Laws in California
The California Child Protective Services (CPS) is an intervention system that provides services for abused, neglected, exploited, and abandoned children and their families.
First, they get referrals. Then, they investigate the case to determine if the child needs protection and how to deal with that specific instance.
The CPS has two general approaches to cases:
- The child stays home and they provide up to 12 months of assistance to the victim and family.
- The child is removed from the home and they provide assistance for up to 18 months.
If the CPS suspects the child isn’t safe, they’ll develop a plan to remove them from home (and from their parents) as soon as possible. The child will be placed in foster care.
At this point, you have up to 18 months to prove you can safely reunify with your child. If you fail to do that — for any reason — your child will be taken away permanently and stay in foster care.
This worst-case scenario can be avoided, though. Better yet, the time you and your child spend apart can be shortened or even avoided altogether. But for that to happen, you need to:
- Make the best possible decisions at every stage
- Know what to say, when to say it, what not to say, and when not to say anything at all
Essentially, you need to do everything right at every stage of the process (which is a lot to ask given the pressure you’re under in a situation like this). That’s why it’s so important to have an experienced child abuse lawyer advising you on what to say and do at every step.
The Consequences of a Child Abuse Guilty Verdict
In California, child abuse is a “wobbler” offense. This means that the punishment “wobbles” between two levels of severity — misdemeanor or felony.
A misdemeanor guilty verdict will lead to one of the following:
- Up to one year in county jail
- A fine of up to $6,000
- Both county jail time and a fine
For a felony conviction, you’ll face one of these outcomes:
- Two, four, or six years in state prison
- A fine of up to $6,000
- Both prison time and a fine
In most cases, the difference between walking away with a misdemeanor or getting a lengthy state prison sentence is having an experienced child abuse lawyer like Mariya Melkonyan by your side.
Plus, a felony conviction will likely count as a “strike” under the California Three Strikes Law, which can eventually land you a 25-year-to-life sentence. This is another reason why it’s so important to have proper legal representation. We’ll go into more detail about this law up next.
What if a Defendant Has Prior Child Abuse Offenses?
If the defendant was convicted of child abuse in the preceding 10 years, four years of prison time will be added to their sentence.
Is Child Abuse a Strike Under the California Three Strikes Law?
Child abuse may count as a strike under the California Three Strikes Law. Let’s break it down.
This law states that if someone is convicted:
- Of any crime after having one serious prior conviction (second strike), they must go to prison and will get double the sentence.
- Of a serious felony after two serious prior convictions (third strike), they’ll face a 25-year-to-life sentence, without the possibility of time off.
So, according to this law, any child abuse conviction — no matter the severity — can land you a “second strike,” double sentence if you’ve been convicted of a serious felony once.
If you’ve previously been convicted of a serious felony twice, you’ll get a “third strike,” 25-years-to-life sentence if you’re convicted of a serious felony.
Premises for a Child Abuse Guilty Verdict in California
To be found guilty of child abuse charges in California, the prosecution must prove that:
- The victim was under 18 years old
- You acted willfully
- You inflicted cruel punishment and/or injury
- The punishment and/or injury caused physical trauma
- You had no legal excuse
Note that all five points must be proven for a guilty verdict. This gives an experienced child abuse defense lawyer plenty of opportunities to argue your case.
How Can the Prosecution Prove Corporal Injury to a Child?
To prove corporal injury to a child, the prosecution needs evidence. They can use:
- Pictures of injuries
- Pictures or footage of the incident
- Police reports of the incident
- Medical records, bills, and expenses
- Witness statements
To make it clearer, ‘corporal injury’ means you physically injured someone on purpose and it resulted in a traumatic condition (e.g., concussion, serious bruising or wounds, broken bones, third-degree burns, etc.)
Legal Defenses for Child Abuse Cases in California
Because the prosecution has to prove all five points mentioned above, there are a few legal defenses an experienced child abuse defense attorney can pursue, including:
- Arguing that the defendant was lawfully disciplining the child
- Providing evidence that shows the injuries weren’t caused by abuse
- Proving it was an accident
To better illustrate these defense strategies for child abuse charges, we’ll give you some examples. Note that all names and cases below are fictitious.
The Defendant Was Lawfully Disciplining the Child
Defendant Dale’s son, Victim Vince, had been skipping school for months. Dale grounded Vince numerous times, but his behavior only got worse.
One day, Dale found out Vince had skipped school and stolen sodas from a 7-Eleven. Dale gave Vince a spanking. The neighbor saw it and reported Dale for child abuse. Will he be convicted?
He didn’t use excessive force or inflict cruel punishment. No injuries or bruises resulted from the spanking. Dale reasonably disciplined his child. He won’t be convicted of child abuse charges.
The Injuries Weren’t Caused by Abuse
Victim Vic injured his shoulder while playing basketball but told no one. The following morning, neighbor Nate sees Defendant Dahlia strongly pulling Vic by the arm because he’s late for school.
Later that day, Nate’s son tells him that Vic isn’t coming over to play ball because he’s injured his shoulder. Nate assumes the injury resulted from Dahlia pulling Vic’s arm that morning and reports it.
Dahlia is now facing child abuse charges. Is she guilty?
Well, she did it willfully, and it could be argued that she was unreasonably disciplining Vic. However, Dahlia pulling Vic’s arm wasn’t what caused the injury. In fact, she didn’t even know he was injured — he had said nothing by the time she pulled his arm.
Dahlia is not guilty.
It Was an Accident
On a Sunday morning, Defendant Dana slept in. Victim Vanessa and brother Ben woke up earlier and started playing catch. Vanessa fell down the stairs and got considerable bruising on her face and body.
Dana woke up and immediately took Vanessa to the hospital. The nurse suspected Dana was abusing Vanessa and reported it. Is Dana guilty of child abuse?
Vanessa was playing with Ben when she fell and got injured. Dana was sleeping. Absolutely nothing points to abuse, criminal intent, or negligence.
Vanessa’s injury was an accident. Dana did nothing wrong. She’s innocent.
Get Legal Representation with an Experienced Child Abuse Lawyer
Child abuse is a complex and nuanced offense. On one hand, all the intricacies of the California child abuse laws and the Three Strikes Law make it hard for the average person to navigate.
On the other hand, they give an experienced child abuse lawyer plenty of ways to maneuver around and argue your case — that’s why it’s so important to get competent legal representation.
With 13 years of experience as a former Deputy District Attorney as well as Jury Trial experience in all sorts of misdemeanors and felonies — including child abuse cases — Mariya Melkonyan will expertly and effectively defend you in court against the charges you’re facing.
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