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.
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:
Under California law, child neglect is a different offense than child abuse. There are two severity levels:
Know that you can also be charged with child endangerment when charged with any of these offenses.
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.
According to CPC 273d, these are the premises for a child abuse conviction:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
For a felony conviction, you’ll face one of these outcomes:
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.
If the defendant was convicted of child abuse in the preceding 10 years, four years of prison time will be added to their sentence.
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:
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.
To be found guilty of child abuse charges in California, the prosecution must prove that:
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.
To prove corporal injury to a child, the prosecution needs evidence. They can use:
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.)
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:
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.
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.
California Laws on Felony Plea Bargaining
A felony plea bargain is an agreement that allows you to plead guilty in exchange for a less severe charge or a lighter sentence. Read full article here.
California Child Endangerment Cases
Child endangerment is a legal term that refers to putting a child in a dangerous or harmful situation. Read full article here.