What You Don't Know Can Hurt You in Child Abuse Cases

Parenting Choices May Lead to Child Abuse Charges

As criminal defense attorneys, we are often called on to represent people charged with crimes that evoke strong reactions from the public. Whether or not our clients are guilty is besides the point – people charged with certain offenses are usually judged harshly in the court of public opinion before ever setting foot inside the courthouse. Offenses that are almost guaranteed to produce this result are those involving children. Two charges we commonly see in our firm are “Misdemeanor Child Abuse” and “Exposing a Child to Fire.” Both charges are Class 1 misdemeanors, and both carry the possibility of jail time or probation if convicted. Good parents can end up in front of a judge due to their ignorance about the law, and in this case, what those parents don’t know can hurt them.

Misdemeanor child abuse is defined by N.C.G.S. §14-318.2 as inflicting physical injury, or allowing physical injury to be inflicted, or creating or allowing to be created a substantial risk of physical injury, upon or to a child by other than accidental means. This can be done by a parent, guardian, or a caregiver such as a babysitter. Parents in North Carolina have the right to physically discipline their children via corporal punishment (ex: spanking), but they must be careful to moderate their actions. According to the N.C. Child Protective Services Manual, “significant trauma and tissue damage, such as bruises, welts, or lacerations may be signs of child neglect (inappropriate discipline) or child abuse, depending on the extent of the injuries.” The point of punishment should be to create a lasting lesson for the child, not a lasting injury.

“Exposing a Child to Fire” does not necessarily mean that you leave a child unattended next to an open flame. Rather, the language of the law makes it a crime for any person to “leave any child under the age of eight years locked or otherwise confined in any dwelling, building or enclosure, and go away from such dwelling, building or enclosure without leaving some person of the age of discretion in charge of the same, so as to expose the child to danger by fire.” In other words, if you leave a young child unattended for any significant length of time in an enclosed space, you could be found guilty of exposing a child to fire.

In practical effect, this means that parents should be wary of leaving their young children alone in a car – most of the cases my firm sees of people charged with “Exposing a Child to Fire” involve a vehicle of some type. Parents of young children can find themselves charged with this misdemeanor even if they left their children alone in a car for a short period of time. Furthermore, leaving a child in a vehicle unattended could also be considered Misdemeanor Child Abuse, as it can be seen as creating a substantial risk of physical injury. As tempting as it may be to leave Junior buckled in his car seat while you run inside the post office to drop off a package, doing so may land you in trouble with the law.

The good news is that even with offenses involving a child, a conviction is not a foregone conclusion. In Wake County, prosecutors may be willing to dismiss the charges of a first-time offender in exchange for parenting classes and satisfaction of other conditions. Many of our clients have taken classes through a local organization called SAFEChild and have found these services helpful beyond the courthouse. Every case is different, however, and it is a good idea to speak to an attorney to see if you might qualify for such a program.

Parenthood is one of the most demanding jobs in the world and even the best parent in the world can make a mistake. But that mistake doesn’t have to define you as a person or define your relationship with your children. Just like parents look out for the best interests of their children, we look out for the best interests of our clients, no matter the offense.