Child abuse charges cover a range of allegations from intentional harm through overly zealous discipline, to acts by people who were not even thinking of children at the time. Even failures to act can be charged as child abuse.
The Prosecution May not Have to Prove Intent to Cause Harm
Most criminal charges require the prosecution to prove that the accused intended to do something that is a crime. However, there are some exceptions for reckless or negligent behavior that is so serious it is considered criminal. Child abuse is among those charges that do not always require intent, and is not always limited to parents, guardians, or those having custody of a child.
To better understand just how broad the child abuse statutes in Colorado are, we set out two major types of scenarios in which child abuse is often charged. Of course there is the most straight-forward scenario in which a person is accused of direct and intentional abuse of a child, such as physical abuse. Those cases in which there is no intent can be so broad as to include all those which seem intentional but the state is unable to prove that abuse occurred “knowingly”, all the way through a long list of cases in which child abuse is added on to other charges in which criminal activity is alleged to have simply occurred with a child present, or simply in a home where a child resides.
The actual definition of child abuse as it is contained in Colorado Revised Statutes (C.R.S. § 18-6-401(1)) does not require any intent. In fewer words than the more detailed definition in the statute, it simply defines child abuse as causing an injury to a child, or unreasonably placing a child in a situation that results in injury. Although that explanation is paraphrased for brevity, it conveys just how broad the definition is. One can think of many, many scenarios in which child abuse could be charged under that definition. If the prosecution is able to prove that a person intended to harm a child, the crime may be charged at a higher level than if no intent can be proven. So intent does tend to factor in at some point. However, not meaning to cause harm does not prevent a person from being charged with child abuse, and sometimes in situations which the accused never anticipated.
Relationship to the Child and Reasonable Discipline
Clearly a person accused of physically attacking a child is in danger of being charged and convicted of child abuse. The statute simply requires that a person cause injury to a child. This is not limited to parents. Child abuse can be charged along with assault and/or battery in this scenario, and anyone can be charged regardless of relationship to the child. However, reasonable discipline is a defense to this kind of child abuse charge. As always, the prosecution has the burden of proving all the elements of child abuse beyond a reasonable doubt. Once the defense of reasonable discipline is raised, the prosecution has the burden of proving that the physical discipline was unreasonable, and therefore amounted to abuse.
Abuse Charges Based on Simple Presence of the Child
When child abuse is charged where there was no intent to harm a child, the accused is usually taken by surprise. Our office receives many calls from those accused with child abuse who consider themselves good parents, as well as people who aren’t parents at all and never intended any harm to a child. A very common scenario is the allegation of domestic violence while a child is present. If an argument between adults escalates to the point of resulting in criminal charges for either party, including assault, criminal mischief, and even denial of telephone service (grabbing a cell phone), child abuse charges will often be added if a child is present during the argument, or even within hearing range.
Child abuse can be charged for possession or manufacture of certain drugs in the presence of the child, or in the child’s home. In some cases it does not matter if the child is home at the time the possession or manufacture occurs. Simply having or making those drugs in a place where a child resides amounts to child abuse under the statute. On the other side of this, knowingly taking a child to a home where these drugs are present or being made, putting a child in a vehicle with these drugs present, or placing a child in the care of someone in possession of certain illegal drugs can result in a child abuse conviction as well.
Failure to Protect a Child
To broaden some of the examples provided above, it is also possible for a person to be convicted of child abuse for allowing a child to be abused or injured by another person. This one is often seen in the context of step-parents. Sometimes families decide that a step-mother or step-father role does not include making decisions about discipline or correction of the children. As an example, imagine a step-mother has historically left all decisions regarding discipline or correction of step-children to the children’s father. The father then disciplines the children using unreasonable force and the step-mother is aware of this, and takes no action to intervene. Step-mother in this scenario is at risk of a child abuse conviction.
It may also be important to know that doctor-patient privilege is limited with respect to admissions of child abuse. Those who are considering sharing information with a doctor or therapist that could in any way support a child abuse charge should always talk to an attorney first. This is not something that should be resolved directly with the doctor or therapist, as it is always best to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney to discuss the risk of criminal charges that could arise from various admissions.
Classification of Charges
As stated above, intent or lack of intent can make a difference to how child abuse is charged. Proof of intent generally means a higher, or more serious, level of charge. That is not always true, as the statute requires a higher level of charges for both knowing and reckless abuse in some cases, while requiring a lower level charge for criminally negligent abuse. Another major determining factor considers wether injury, serious bodily injury, or death occurs. If the accused is or was a parent or guardian of the child, age of the child, or whether the accused was in a position of trust are all among the factors that can change the level of a child abuse charge. If the prosecution can show that the accused knowingly or recklessly abused a child and the abuse resulted in death of the child, child abuse is likely to be charged as a class 2 felony. A long list of variables including those listed here cover a range of felony and misdemeanor classifications all the way down to a class 3 misdemeanor. However, convictions for both misdemeanor and felony child abuse are considered extraordinary risk crimes, and are subject to modified sentencing ranges.
Attorney Vernon Ready has extensive experience handling child abuse allegations through years of practicing in the fields of both criminal defense and family law. If you are facing child abuse charges, or believe you might be charged with child abuse, you need to speak with an experienced attorney about your situation. Each child abuse case is different, and it is not possible to fully understand your best defense by simply reviewing web content. Take the next step by calling Ready Law to schedule a consultation.