Whenever there is the possibility that a minor is being abused, swift action and thorough consideration are necessary to protect both the child and the family. Legitimate cases of abuse can cause a lifetime of physical and psychological torment, as can unfounded claims of abuse and neglect. Knowing how the law defines and categorizes abuse can be helpful for people in both of these groups.
The Child and Juvenile Dependency Law
The California Welfare and Institutions Code (WIC) offers details on what actions or conditions warrant the child to become a dependent of the court. The juvenile court system in California is governed by the laws and regulations found within the WIC.
These include circumstances where the child:
Has suffered intentional serious physical or emotional harm from a parent or guardian;
Is at a significant risk of experiencing severe physical or emotional harm inflicted willfully by a parent or guardian;
Was harmed by someone due to the parent or guardian’s negligence;
Is unable to be cared for by a parent or guardian such that the child has or may experience serious illness or harm; or
Has been, or is at risk of, being sexually abused by a parent or guardian.
In addition to these guidelines, there are also provisions for situations involving abuse of a child’s siblings, as well as cruelty towards the child. When any of the conditions established in WIC are met, and the child becomes a dependent of the state, a number of things may occur.
The purpose of these regulations is to provide protection and safety to children who are being abused or neglected. It may be decided that the best course of action is to temporarily remove that child from their home until necessary services can be completed by the parents or guardians.
Reunification is the goal, and to reach that goal, social and health services are commonly offered to the family.
Criminal Charges for Child Abuse
While criminal charges are not always brought against people in these situations, that is an option if state agencies determine it is warranted. So, what happens if criminal charges are filed for child abuse?
The California Penal Code determines the qualifying factors for this offense, as well as potential punishments if convicted. Section 273d of the Penal Code states that a person who intentionally inflicts cruel or physical punishment is guilty of felony child abuse.
A felony child abuse conviction has the potential to bring imprisonment, thousands of dollars in fines, and court-mandated counseling, not to mention the consequences of being labeled as a felon. Certain crimes can lead to sex offender registration as well.
However, the law is often open for interpretation in this classification, as Section 273a states that anyone who causes a child to suffer unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering or places that child in a situation that endangers them is guilty of a misdemeanor. Such a misdemeanor charge can result in jail time, as well as mandatory counseling programs and probation.
How does a prosecutor or judge determine which level of offense is appropriate? It is greatly impacted by the specific circumstances of each case. They will most likely consider the severity of the alleged abuse, any criminal history, past allegations of abuse, and any other factor they think represents the defendant or that may affect the relationship with the child in question.
Completion of necessary services with a focus on family reunification should be the focus of everyone involved in this process.
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