There are several offenses which fall under the title of child abuse. The only ones discussed for the purpose of this article is physical abuse of a child and failure to provide adequate care.
In order to constitute physical child abuse, it must be found that the defendant willfully inflicted physical punishment and/or injury to a child that caused a traumatic condition which does not constitute reasonable discipline of the child. A parent hitting a child need not directly cause the injury. A traumatic condition is any sort of physical injury, even if it is a small injury, that is caused by the defendant’s use of physical force; if the injury would not have happened but for the application of the force, the force is the cause of that injury. For example, if a parent had forced their child to kneel in a mound of uncooked rice as punishment, and the rice then cut up the child’s knees because the parent continued to yell at the child that they were not allowed to get up and held them down by the shoulders, while the rice had caused the injury directly, the application of the parent’s force upon the child constitutes the force necessary to cause the rice to make the wounds on the child. Another example would be a parent unleashing a vicious dog into the room of their child and then shutting and locking them in together. The locking of the door or the placing of the dog in the room is enough to constitute the force element of child abuse. If the dog mauled the child, the parent would have committed child abuse, even though they were not in control of the dog at the time of mauling.
A defense to child abuse is that the parent was reasonably disciplining their child. It is not unlawful to ‘spank’ a child so long as it is with a hand and it is not excessive in relation to the circumstances. This is adjudged under the standard of what a reasonable parent would do in any given situation. If going to trial, the jury will be the judge of whether the discipline was reasonable.
For the offense of failing to provide for one’s child, a defendant must be a parent who failed to provide necessities for their child without lawful excuse. Necessities are defined as clothing, food, shelter and medical or remedial care. Remedial care includes spiritual treatment in accordance with a defendant’s religious beliefs.
It is a defense that the parent was not able to earn enough money to provide some of those necessities. However, it is not a defense if the parent had chosen to spend money on something else and then ended up without money to buy necessities or if the parent has not sought work. So, if a parent is unemployed and cannot get a job for whatever reason, and could not afford to put gas in their car or take the bus to get their child to a doctor when they were sick, that parent has an arguable defense. However, if a parent sits at home watching television, and spends their SSI check on new shoes and a watch for themselves as opposed to buying food for their children, they would be failing to provide.
It is also not a defense if the defendant abandons his or her child to someone else that can care better for the child. Dropping off a child on the other parent’s doorstep because they have more money does not negate the responsibility of still providing for one’s own child. Both parents are responsible for providing necessities to the child regardless of who has custody. Though a non parent may receive custody of a child and then provide for them, if at any point the non parent can no longer provide, the actual parent is then obligated to still provide for that child.
What would constitute a legal excuse would be adoption of the child lawfully. For all purposes an adopter becomes the ‘parent’ for all purposes legally and the biological parents are relieved of providing necessities.
Elements, crimes and defenses vary from state to state and within the federal system. If you or someone you know is charged with any crime, as always, you should consult a local attorney, licensed to practice in your jurisdiction and preferably one practicing only criminal law. You can always look for your local criminal attorney at http://www.crimelawyers.org