Child Neglect Laws: California Child Neglect Laws & Penalties

California Child Neglect Laws: What is Child Neglect and The Penalties
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Unfortunately, adults hurt children in a number of ways, either intentionally or unwittingly. California Penal Code Section 270 addresses intentional child neglect, which applies to unborn children as well. The law is intricate and complex, and is intended to cover numerous circumstances and scenarios.

Under PC 270, defines abandonment and neglect of children involves willfully failing to provide for or take care of a child’s basic needs. Child neglect is a form of child abuse, and a charge of neglect is assumed to be accurate unless and until the parent can prove that it’s wrong.

California Penal Code Section 270

California law states that a parent is guilty of child neglect when that parent “willfully omits, without lawful cause, to furnish necessary clothing, food, shelter or medical attendance, or other remedial care for his or her child.” The code refers to these needs as physical necessities.

But what, exactly, does willfully mean? And what’s lawful cause? And who qualifies as a parent under the law?

Definition of a Parent

PC 270 doesn’t restrict the term parent to just biological or adoptive parents. It can include anyone who assumes the role of parent or caregiver. A father doesn’t have to have been married to the child’s mother, and divorce, by itself, doesn’t terminate parental responsibility. A man is considered to be a child’s parent under California child neglect laws if a woman gives birth while cohabiting with a man she’s married to, although an exception exists if he’s proven to be impotent or sterile.

It doesn’t matter if the wife was having one or more affairs before the conception of the child, the man has the right to file a paternity action within two years of the child’s birth if he doubts that he’s the biological father. If he’s proven to not be the parent, typically after genetic testing, he can’t be found guilty of neglect.

PC 270 includes children conceived by artificial insemination, but only if the father consented to the insemination in writing. Otherwise, he’s not legally considered a parent if there was no written consent.

When Parental Rights Are Terminated

The definition of parent does not include anyone who’s parental rights have been legally terminated. Parents who have given a child up for adoption can’t be considered parents for purposes of child neglect, nor can parents who safely surrender their newborns to a California authority.

Read More: Parental Rights Terminated Due to Child Abandonment

Must There Be a Relationship?

California law doesn’t make a distinction for parents who rarely, if ever, see their children, or even for those who have never had contact with their child. It’s not required that a parent must have custodial or even visitation rights before that parent can be charged with neglect.

This means that a man who impregnates a woman during a one-time event can be legally considered to have neglected the child if he doesn’t see to the child’s needs, even if he’s not aware of the child’s needs or he tries to be involved, but the mother or other relatives reject his overtures. This can be a legal defense, however, because he might well be able to prove that the neglect wasn’t willful as required by the law.

Physical Necessities

Physical necessities include adequate shelter, sufficient food, appropriate clothing and medical care. California law includes remedial care in its definition of medical care. This basically means that a parent that alternatively seeks spiritual help in curing a sick child, such as prayer or care by a faith healer, cannot be found neglectful on that basis alone. The treatment must be provided by a recognized denomination or church, and this loophole is closed in cases when a child is seriously ill or dying. In this case, a parent is legally obligated to seek traditional medical intervention.

Willful Neglect Defined

The term willful translates to intentional, meaning that a parent logically understood that certain actions or a lack of certain actions might put her child in jeopardy, and she did it anyway. For example, a parent might not realize that her child is seriously sick. The ailment might be severe, but symptoms are mild. She could argue that it should not be considered neglect if she failed to seek treatment because the failure wasn’t willful or intentional.

Without Lawful Cause

The phrase, "without lawful excuse" is a legal loophole that provides that a parent isn’t neglectful if he was prevented from caring for the child due to circumstances beyond his control. Maybe he failed to provide shelter, clothing or even food because he’s out of work and he literally has no money to meet these responsibilities. This isn’t a willful failure to provide. This, too, can be a legal defense unless he’s found to be spending his funds on other things or perhaps not even looking for a job or other means to provide some income for his family.

In determining a parent's ability to provide, the court will consider all income sources, including gifts and social benefits.

Other Legal Defenses

A parent might try to prove that the other parent is falsely accusing him, trying to stir up trouble to get him out of the child’s life or in retaliation against him for a perceived wrong. In some cases, an accused, estranged parent might be able to provide a verifiable record of all his attempts to provide care, only to have those attempts ignored or rejected by the custodial parent.

He might also argue that a third-party reporter is simply mistaken and misunderstood the facts of the situation. Concerned third parties can contact state or county agencies anonymously in California to report suspicions of child neglect. For example, raising the defense of mistake of fact, a parent might argue against a charge of neglect because his child wears light cotton clothing all winter long when, in fact, it's because the child is allergic to wool or other heavy materials.

Duty to Report Neglect

As in most states, California law stretches to include mandated reporters in its Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act. Physicians, nurses, teachers and other school staff, clergy members, coaches and social workers are all required by law to report suspected incidences of child neglect. The full list of mandated reporters can be found in California Penal Code Section 11165.7.

The law requires only reasonable suspicion of neglect based on apparent facts. A reporter does not have to be able to prove her suspicions. A report might be made because a child always seems voraciously hungry or because he’s consistently dirty, often ill or suffering an untreated injury, inadequately dressed or frequently absent from, or late for, school.

Mandated reporters are required to contact the appropriate state or county agency, such as a police or sheriff’s department, or Child Protective Services. The agency will follow up by investigating the situation. Failure to report suspected child neglect by a mandated reporter can be charged as a misdemeanor offense, punishable by up to six months in jail, a fine of up to $1,000, or both.

Child Neglect Laws and Punishment in California

Child neglect is generally a misdemeanor under California Penal Code Section 270, punishable by a fine of up to $2,000, imprisonment in a county jail for up to one year, or both. A judge will often order probation, however, usually requiring parenting classes or counseling.

The punishment is more severe when a child has been physically harmed. Under California Penal Code Section 273.5, neglect can be charged as a felony when the parent willfully inflicted corporal punishment and the child suffered a traumatic condition as a result of the punishment. The sentence for a felony conviction may be imprisonment in a county jail for up to one year, imprisonment in a state prison for two, three, or four years, a fine of up to $6,000, or by both fine and imprisonment.

A parent might additionally be charged with child endangerment or even involuntary manslaughter if she provides remedial care in lieu of traditional medical care in situations when the child is severely ill or dies.


  • In California, child neglect involves willfully failing, without lawful excuse, to provide for a child's basic needs, including clothing, food, shelter and medical needs.

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