Degrees of Crimes in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases
What Degree of Crime can You be Charged with for Child Abuse in New Jersey?
New Jersey child abuse laws protect people against harm, including harm committed by parents against their own children, by teachers and daycare providers entrusted to look after someone else’s children, and any other adult in whose care a child has been placed. An adult who is accused of violating one of these laws may face criminal charges, and the degree of the child abuse charges determines the range of possible penalties. But even when a child abuse allegation does not rise to the level of a crime and does not result in criminal charges, the person being accused can face severe consequences. For instance, an allegation that you abused, neglected, or mistreated a child in your care may trigger an investigation by child protective services. If that investigation confirms the allegations, it’s very possible that you will have limitations placed on your ability to raise your own child. In the worst cases, your child could be permanently removed from your home. To learn more about the degrees of crimes in NJ child abuse cases, including the possible penalties for both a criminal charge and a DCPP investigation, keep reading. If you have been charged with any type of crime related to a child abuse or neglect investigation, or have been contacted by the Division of Child Protection and Permanency, connect with our dedicated New Jersey child abuse defense lawyers for a free consultation and to go over your case.
What Happens If You Are Accused of Child Abuse in New Jersey?
New Jersey laws are very tough on convicted child abusers, and judges often impose maximum sentences in these cases, because it is generally understood that children depend on adults for care and support. When a parent or guardian fails to provide that needed care and support, or when the adult directly harms the child, NJ criminal laws are likely to come into play. Additionally, there is another component to child abuse allegations that goes beyond criminal charges: an investigation by the NJ Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP). When DCPP gets involved, it means that the parent is being investigated separate and apart from the criminal investigation. The main consideration for DCPP is whether the child should remain in the custody of the parent, or whether the child would be safer if they were removed from the home.
Distinct from a DCPP investigation is a possible criminal investigation, which can lead to criminal charges that carry prison time and other penalties. In many cases, DCPP investigators who determine that a parent is causing harm to their children will report the parent to the prosecutor’s office, and prosecutors will then make a decision about whether to proceed with criminal charges.
What if a Person is Charged Criminally based on Child Abuse or Neglect Accusations?
One of the key factors that can expose an adult to criminal liability is their relationship to a child who has allegedly been victimized. Basically, if the adult is responsible for the care and wellbeing of the child – either through a legal relationship like parent-child or guardianship, or as a caregiver to whom the child’s care has been entrusted – that adult can be arrested and face criminal charges for failing to meet their responsibilities.
There are different types of charges that stem from alleged child abuse in New Jersey:
- Child Abuse: Child abuse, abandonment, cruelty, and neglect are addressed by N.J.S.A. 9:6-1 and N.J.S.A. 9:6-3. As set forth by the statutes, a person can be charged with the crime of child abuse if they expose a child under their care to any kind of harm, including emotional or mental harm. This law is interpreted very broadly by prosecutors so that it applies in a number of different circumstances. Even the use of profane language around a child can trigger child abuse charges.
- Child Endangerment: Since N.J.S.A. 2C:44-4 applies when a person with a legal duty of care for a child causes any kind of harm that would be considered either abuse or neglect, merely allowing a child under your care to be exposed to danger is enough for authorities to bring child endangerment charges against you. Also, the criminal statute does not require the defendant to have intentionally placed the child in danger. This means that if you exposed the child under your care to health or safety risks, even unintentionally, you can still be charged with Endangering the Welfare of a Child. That’s because an individual is held to a much higher standard of care when they are responsible for the wellbeing of a minor who cannot provide or care for themselves, and the law accounts for that fact. Additionally, if the child endangerment involved sexual conduct that could corrupt or debase the morals of the child, then you might be subject to the most severe penalties under the statute.
- Sexual Assault: When the child abuse involves a sexual element, then can become a sex offense and the charges may be elevated. Depending on the circumstances, you could be charged with Sexual Assault in addition to being charged with Child Endangerment. A charge for Sexual Assault or Aggravated Sexual Assault needs to be taken very seriously because a sex crime conviction could destroy your life. Not only would you be subject to substantial prison time, but you would also be required to register as a convicted sex offender after you serve any time behind bars.
What Determines the Degree of Crime and Penalties?
Not surprisingly, one of the most serious consequences of a child abuse conviction is prison time. Depending on the nature of the accusations and the degree of the charges, you could face several years of incarceration behind bars. The same goes for the other penalties stemming from a child abuse charge. The range of possible penalties in your Child Abuse case will be determined by the degree of the charges.
- First Degree Child Abuse Crime: If your child abuse case involved an act of sexual penetration with a minor under the age of 16, you could face first degree aggravated sexual assault charges. A conviction carries a possible sentence of 10-20 years in prison, as well as a requirement to register as a convicted sex offender for the rest of your life under Megan’s Law. These are some of the harshest penalties that can be handed down in a child abuse case.
- Second Degree Child Abuse Crime: A conviction on a second degree criminal charge is punishable by a sentence of 5-10 years in state prison, as well as a fine of up to $150,000. These charges are more common in child endangerment cases, such as physically restraining and harming a minor under your care. Second degree charges may also be filed when the defendant is accused of sexual assault involving a minor between the ages of 16 and 18.
- Third Degree Child Abuse Crime: Third degree felony charges carry a possible penalty of 3-5 years in prison and a $15,000 fine. Less serious child endangerment cases are likely to trigger third degree charges. For example, if you neglected your child and unintentionally exposed them to illness, it’s possible that prosecutors will opt to charge you with a third degree offense instead of a fourth degree offense.
- Fourth Degree Child Abuse Crime: Prosecutors also have the option to bring fourth degree child abuse charges for offenses that did not actually result in the child sustaining any immediate physical harm but that nonetheless exposed the child to harm or caused the child to suffer emotional/mental harm. For instance, failing to provide the child with adequate clothing and access to education. A fourth degree charge is still a felony, however, so it can result in a sentence of up to 18 months in prison.
Moreover, you could face multiple charges in your child abuse case, with the penalties quickly piling up if you are convicted of more than one offense.
Who can Help?
Beyond the crimes and punishments for child abuse in New Jersey, the DCPP investigation could result in you losing custody of your child regardless of the outcome of the criminal matter. That’s why you should be represented by an experienced defense lawyer who is familiar with both the NJ criminal justice system and DCPP procedures. You can trust our knowledgeable child abuse attorneys to be on your side for all of this, fighting to avoid the serious consequences you face for child abuse related crimes. Call (908)-356-6900 for a confidential consultation free of charge.