Getting convicted of child abuse can tear apart your family and tarnish your reputation. You may also face harsh fines and years in jail. When the well-being of children is on the line, prosecutors are under pressure to secure the conviction of the suspect. This means that in some cases, overzealous prosecutors send innocent people to jail over false accusations of child abuse. A San Diego assault and domestic violence lawyer at McElfresh Law can help.
Inflicting Injuries or Imposing a Cruel Punishment May Be Child Abuse
California Penal Code 273d PC defines the crime child abuse. To successfully convict you of this crime, a prosecutor must present enough evidence to show beyond a reasonable doubt that:
- You willfully inflicted an injury or cruel or inhuman punishment on the child
- The punishment or injury caused the child to experience a traumatic physical condition
- Your actions did not consist in reasonable disciplining of the child
The prosecutor must show that the child experienced a traumatic physical condition as the result of your actions. A broken bone, bruises, or scratches may all consist in a traumatic condition—it’s up for a jury to decide whether the child experienced a trauma.
For purposes of California law, the willfulness requirement applies to the suspect’s actions—not the consequences he or she expected to result from those actions. Thus, charges for a San Diego child abuse case can arise out of any instance in which a child receives injuries from an adult who intentionally strikes, even if he or she did not intend to hurt the child.
Parents Have a Right to Use Reasonable Force in Disciplining Their Children
If you can show that your actions consisted in reasonable discipline, you may be able to avoid a conviction in a San Diego child abuse case. But this defense may be hard to prove because the reasonable disciplining of a child does not usually result in traumatic physical conditions. You must also show that the discipline wasn’t excessive under the circumstances—but there is no clear standard for when corporal punishment may be justified against a child.
Prosecutors can use evidence of prior instances of child abuse or other domestic violence against the accused. This is unique in criminal law, where in most cases evidence of prior convictions cannot be used to show the criminal character of a defendant. In a San Diego child abuse case, the judge will conduct a preliminary hearing to determine whether such evidence may be used in your trial. Certain guidelines apply. For example, the prosecution cannot use evidence of a prior conviction for child abuse if it occurred more than ten years in the past.
Child abuse is a so-called “wobbler” in California, meaning that depending on the facts of your case and your criminal history, the prosecutor may charge you with either a felony or a misdemeanor. The penalty for a first conviction of felony child abuse can be anywhere between two and six years imprisonment. For the misdemeanor version of child abuse, the maximum penalty is one year in jail. In either case, you may also face a fine of up to $6,000. For second offenders, a judge may impose an additional four years jail time to your sentence.
Child Abuse that Does Not Result in Injury May Be Battery
In situations in which an intentional strike on a child does not result in a traumatic condition or injury, simple battery charges may apply. California Penal Code 242b provides that battery occurs whenever someone aggressively and intentionally touches another person. It doesn’t matter whether the physical contact causes an injury or even pain.
As with child abuse, a possible defense in these cases is that the aggressive physical contact was a lawful attempt to discipline the child. Parents are allowed to use reasonable physical force to discipline their children when the circumstances justify it. A conviction for battery involving a child may result in six months jail and/or a fine of $2,000.
What Is Child Endangerment?
If you don’t actually hit a child, but your actions put him or her into harm’s way, you could be charged with child endangerment. According to California Penal Code 272a PC, it is illegal to willfully put a child in a situation in which he or she will likely get harmed.
So if you allow your child to stay with a friend or a relative with a history of child or substance abuse, and your child gets abused, you may be guilty of child endangerment. Importantly, the child doesn’t actually need to get hurt for the charges to apply. For example, if you allow your child to engage in a dangerous activity that should only be performed by adults, you could be guilty of child endangerment—even if the child doesn’t get hurt.
Facing False Accusations
Children often get swept into their parents’ conflicts. What’s even more tragic is when one parent uses the child to get back at the other parent. Many child abuse charges stem from false
accusations motivated by jealousy or anger. Children get injured all the time for innocent reasons—they play outside, do sports, fight among themselves, and are often clumsy. It’s relatively easy for a parent to get falsely accused of their child’s injury.
As a means of protecting children, California doctors and teachers have a duty to report suspected cases of child abuse. If they fail to do so, they may face jail time and fines. For this reason, they may report you to the authorities if they see any suspicious injuries on your child. If you believe you have been falsely accused of child abuse, a skilled San Diego child abuse attorney working on your case can help establish your innocence.
Defending Against Your San Diego Child Abuse Charges
As mentioned above, parents have a right to reasonably discipline their children. Asserting this right can be a defense to your San Diego child abuse charges, but it is not always a possibility. Fortunately, an experienced San Diego child abuse attorney may be able to apply other defenses to your case.
In any criminal case, it’s to the defendant’s advantage to object to or minimize the impact of the prosecution’s evidence. In a child abuse case, a lawyer can accomplish this by deposing and cross-examining key witnesses in an effort to expose gaps or contradictions in their testimony. In some cases, it may be possible to show that the witnesses have a bad motive in testifying against you. If the prosecution intends to use evidence of prior acts of domestic violence or child abuse against you, it may be possible to successfully argue against the use of such evidence.
The prosecution bears the responsibility of proving every element of its case beyond a reasonable doubt. A good attorney can not only highlight the weaknesses of the prosecution’s case, he or she can also present a plausible explanation for the child’s injuries that does not involve your guilt. Jessica McElfresh is a San Diego assault and domestic violence lawyer dedicated to fighting for the rights and freedom of her clients. If you are facing child abuse charges, you can call her today for a free and confidential consultation of your case at (858) 756-7107.