Child abuse is unquestionably a concern for the criminal court and any person found guilty of such an offense will be facing very serious consequences. Under New Jersey Code Title 9, specifically statute N.J.S.A. 9:6-3, any parent, guardian, or person having the care, custody or control of any child, who shall abuse, abandon, be cruel to or neglectful of any child shall be deemed to be guilty of a crime of the fourth degree. Note that this particular section of the New  Jersey Code falls outside of the realm of the typical criminal statutes. The primary criminal statute that governs child abuse cases is N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4. However, the charge is not titled child abuse but rather, endangering the welfare of a child. The main thrust of the statute is to punish and guard against sexual offenses and other acts that cause harm to a child.

Notably, the first section of the statute reads that any person who has or assumed the responsibility of care over a child who engages in sexual conduct that would impair or debauch the morals of a child is guilty of a crime of the second degree. There is also a provision in the law that states that any person having a legal duty of care or assumes responsibility of care who causes the child harm that would make the child an abused or neglected child as defined by Title 9 is guilty of a crime in the second degree. You can see the connection and overlap between these two laws, both of which may apply to a child abuse or neglect case. Let’s examine the state’s child endangerment law and how it applies to parents and legal guardians who have been accused of child abuse or neglect in New Jersey. 

There are three major components to the New Jersey child endangerment law.

Legal Duty of Care

The first component is whether the person being charged had a legal duty to care for the child or assumed the responsibility of care. Legal duty of care can be established if the defendant is the minor’s natural parent, adoptive parent, foster parent, or stepparent. Assumed care is not as straightforward. The facts and circumstances of the relationship need to be thoroughly evaluated before this element of the offense can be proven. Generally, a person who supervises the child on a regular and continuing basis over extended periods of time, and engages in matters that are typically committed to the child’s parents would be deemed to have assumed the reasonability of care. For instance, a babysitter or coach tends to fall into this category. However, an individual who only assumed temporary, brief or occasional caretaking functions will probably not be fit into the statutory definition.

Sexual Conduct

The second major element of the offense is whether the defendant engaged in sexual conduct that would impair or debauch the morals of a child. The statute does not specifically define what sexual conduct is and what impairs the morals of a child means. Similarly, our case law and jury instructions do not provide much guidance either. Our courts’ decisions and jury charges provide that sexual conduct which would impair or debauch the morals of the child is behavior which tends to corrupt, mar, or spoil the morals of a child. Again, the language is very vague and uninformative.

Accordingly, each case needs to be examined separately and the facts and circumstances of every event need to be scrutinized. In some cases, the alleged actions would clearly violate the statute. For example, forcing a minor to engage in intercourse or fellatio would certainly be deemed a sexual act and moreover, would unquestionably impair the morals of a child. However, there are many other circumstances where the end result is not very clear. For instance, if an angry and vengeful ex-spouse calls the police and reports that her ex-husband is bathing with their 3-year old daughter. Under our law, it is very difficult to determine if the parent would be found guilty. If the State can show that the parent engaged in some form of sexual conduct, a conviction may be warranted. However, the simple act of nudity is unlikely to secure a guilty verdict.

Harm or Risk of Harm

The third component of the endangering the welfare of a child law is the exposure of harm to the child. Like the first section of the statute, there are two major elements that must be proven by the State. First, there must be proof that the defendant was in a caretaking position and second, there was a criminal act. However, under this part of the statute, the act is not sexual in nature. Rather, the law turns to our child abuse statute found under Title 9, which, in short, defines child abuse as causing harm to a child or allowing a child to be exposed to a substantial risk of harm.

Similar to the sexual component of the statute, the child abuse section can be imprecise at times. For example, if a parent is beating their child with a belt and leaving welts across their back, such conduct is undeniably criminal and violates the statute. However, if a child is smacked across the face, some would say that such conduct is not an acceptable form of punishment but nevertheless, it may not rise to the level of criminal culpability. Another example is leaving a child unsupervised. If the child is 16-years old and is left home alone for a few hours, that should not be prosecuted. On the other hand, if the child is 10-years old, that may be sufficient for a conviction.

Penalties for Second Degree Endangering the Welfare of a Child

Endangering the welfare of a child is a more serious charge for a parent or guardian or someone else who has assumed legal responsibility for the child involved in the offense. In these situations, child endangerment is a second degree crime. If convicted, a person is faces 5 to 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of $150,000. Further, sexual conduct charged under the statute requires mandatory sex offender registration per the terms of Megan’s Law in New  Jersey. On top of that, these second degree felony charges are considered outside of the realm of Pre-Trial Intervention as a possible resolution to avoid prison and a conviction on your criminal record. Lastly, these charges are deemed ineligible for expungement.

Have You Been Charged with Endangering the Welfare of a Child in Morris County, NJ?

The consequences of a second degree endangering the welfare of a child offense based on allegations of sexual conduct, abuse or neglect of a child for whom you have a legal responsibility can be catastrophic. Criminal charges of this kind can cause irreparable harm to your reputation, your ability to parent your children, and jeopardize your freedom for up to a decade. Clearly, this is not something to be taken lightly. If you are facing charges for endangerment, get in touch with an experienced criminal defense attorney for defense in Morris County areas such as Morristown, Denville, Dover, Parsippany, Madison, Rockaway, Roxbury, and Mount Olive. For a free consultation with a lawyer who can discuss your specific case and available defense options, contact 973-524-7238 anytime.