What Is Child Abandonment?

By Barbara Diggs - Updated June 16, 2017
Young boy alone in a playground

Child abandonment is a form of child neglect where parents physically desert their children or wholly ignore their basic needs. While it's generally a criminal offense, there are specific circumstances under which child abandonment can be legal. A review of history, religion, literature and mythology reveals that child abandonment has long been an issue in society. According to author John Boswell in his book “The Kindness of Strangers,” it is only relatively recently that the government has made efforts to make formal arrangements for abandoned children.

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Definition

According to Black’s Law Dictionary, child abandonment is generally defined as “the act of leaving a…child willfully and without the intent to return" (as cited in Massachusetts vs. Nebel). Every state, however, defines legal abandonment in its own way.

Criminal Abandonment

Every U.S. state except for Maryland has laws that criminalize child abandonment in some form. The legal standard for abandonment, however, differs from state to state. For example, in certain states, a parent or guardian is guilty of abandonment if he or she intentionally deserts a child under the age of 18. In other states, the maximum age of an “abandoned” child is 14. Also, some states don't use the word “abandonment” in their definition but describe actions that de facto constitute abandonment, such as intentionally failing to provide for a child’s fundamental needs (e.g., food, water, shelter, clothing).

Legal Abandonment

All 50 states have laws allowing a parent to legally abandon a minor child under a very limited set of circumstances. These “safe haven” laws permit parents to relinquish infants (ranging from 3 days old to 90 days old, depending on the state) to state custody with minimal information and without fear of being prosecuted. Safe-haven laws are intended to protect newborns from being killed or left in an unsafe place by parents who feel incapable of caring for their children. In 2008, a legal loophole in the Nebraska safe-haven law led to the abandonment of 35 children over the age of 10. The Nebraska legislature took special measures to close the loophole, limiting the age of the child relinquished to no more than 30 days old.

Legal Consequences of Child Abandonment

The class of offense for child abandonment varies between states. In Alabama and Delaware, for example, child abandonment constitutes a misdemeanor, punishable by both imprisonment and/or a fine. In other states, such as Illinois and Michigan, child abandonment is a felony that demands jail time. In circumstances where the abandonment leads to the death of the child, the parent or guardian may be charged with murder, manslaughter or aggravated assault.

Statistics

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that in 1998, an estimated 30,905 babies were abandoned in the U.S. As these statistics predate the safe-haven laws, it's unclear whether nationwide estimates have fallen since the laws' initiation. However, there are some signs of improvement. Several states, including California and Wisconsin, have noted a lessening in the number of illegally abandoned babies and a rise in the number of legally abandoned infants since the passage of their safe-haven laws.

About the Author

Barbara Diggs is a freelance writer living in France. A former corporate lawyer, she has been writing professionally since 2006. She has been published in numerous print and online magazines, specializing in travel, parenting, history and law. Diggs is a graduate of Wesleyan University and Stanford Law School.

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