Child endangerment is a criminal act that involves putting the health and/or safety of a child in danger. Laws in different areas often vary in their definitions of whom is covered by endangerment laws, what actions or inactions constitute endangerment, and whether these offenses fall under wider child abuse and neglect statutes or their own separate statutes. Penalties for breaking endangerment laws also vary in different areas and/or depending on the seriousness of the offense.
In general, child endangerment laws are meant to protect children classified as minors. The age at which a child is considered a minor varies in different areas, but it is usually capped when a child is in his or her teens. Some laws also extend to older children who have physical or mental disabilities and are under the care of a parent, guardian, or other adult. Typically, these laws target anyone who has a responsibility for the care of a child, either on a long-term or temporary basis, such as parents, household members, caregivers, and others. Some areas may also target children who hurt themselves and non-caretakers in their endangerment laws.
Actions that are classified as child endangerment are usually specified in a particular area’s statute and may vary from place to place. They usually include reckless or indifferent acts that put the child’s physical or mental health or overall safety in danger. For example, driving while intoxicated with a child in the car and failing to put an infant in an appropriate child safety seat when riding in a vehicle are often considered child endangerment because the child’s physical health and safety could be at risk if a crash occurs. Excessive child discipline, which can put both a child’s physical and mental health at risk, is also often covered under endangerment laws. Having a child within a certain radius of where street drugs, such as methamphetamine, are being created is also specified as endangerment in certain areas due to possible health risks.
In some areas, child endangerment falls under the broader category of child abuse and neglect, and offenses carry similar penalties whether or not a child is actually harmed. Other areas have separate laws for endangerment that often carry penalties that are different from those for child abuse and neglect. In these areas, the distinction between offenses is usually made based on the fact that, with acts of endangerment, there is only a risk of harm, while with abuse or neglect actual harm is done.
Penalties for child endangerment can vary depending on the action that puts a child at risk and the area in which it is committed. In some cases, offenses may be considered misdemeanors, which usually carry shorter jail terms and/or smaller fines. For example, in Ohio a first-degree misdemeanor child endangerment conviction can result in up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. In other cases, offenses may be considered felonies and result in harsher penalties. For example, a second-degree felony child endangerment conviction in Texas can result in up to 20 years in prison.