Child Endangerment

Child Endangerment - California Penal Code Section 273a

When an adult is caring for a child, the law imposes certain obligations on that that adult. These obligations are designed to ensure that a child under the care of an adult is not exposed to unnecessary or unreasonably dangerous or unhealthy situations.

When an adult fails to adequately care for a child, or to avoid unnecessarily exposing a child to an unreasonably dangerous situation, California law treats that as a criminal matter and may charge the adult under the Penal Code with what is commonly referred to as child endangerment.   

A person, of course, can be charged with child endangerment if they intentionally put a child in an unreasonably dangerous situation. A person may also be charged with child endangerment, even if they did not intend to place a child in a harmful or dangerous situation, if it appears that they were able to prevent the child from being placed in such a situation, but failed to do so. 

Under California law, child endangerment is what is commonly known as a "wobbler," and can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor. The determination of whether to charge as a felony or misdemeanor is made by the prosecutor, who will generally decide based on the facts and circumstances surrounding the events giving rise to the charge. However, in the particular case of child endangerment, the law carves out a circumstance where the crime may only be charged as a misdemeanor.

Child Endangerment - Defined:

The crime of felony or misdemeanor child endangerment is defined by California Penal Code section 273a(a).

A person commits child endangerment when a person willfully causes or permits a child to suffer unjustifiable physical or mental suffering, under circumstances which are likely to produce great bodily harm. Child endangerment is also committed when a person has care or custody of a child, and they cause or permit the child to be injured, or willfully permit that child to be exposed to a situation where their health and wellbeing are put in jeopardy.

Misdemeanor child endangerment is defined similarly to that of its felony counterpart in California Penal Code section 273a(b). The key difference in the definitions of felony/misdemeanor and strict misdemeanor child endangerment is whether or not the conditions and circumstances under which an adult places a child in their care are "likely to produce great bodily harm or death." In the case of felony/misdemeanor child endangerment, the conditions and circumstances the child faces are likely to produce great bodily harm or death; while for strict misdemeanor child endangerment, they are not.

Examples of Child Endangerment:

(1) Allowing a child to play with dangerous objects, such as matches, knives or guns.

(2) Leaving a child unsupervised for a significant period of time, whether at home, in a motor vehicle or in public.

(3) Failing to secure a child in a motor vehicle.

(4) Exposing a child to sexual activity.

(5) Exposing a child to illegal activity, such as drug dealing or drug manufacturing.

(6) Leaving a child with a caregiver or other person who they knew, or should have known, was likely to harm the child.

(7) Unreasonable discipline, such as corporal punishment sufficient to cause severe physical or emotional suffering.

(8) Becoming intoxicated while caring for a child, to the point where adequate care cannot be performed.

How Does Child Endangerment Differ From Child Abuse:

Child endangerment and child abuse are very closely related. Both crimes are considered "wobblers" and can be charged as either misdemeanors or felonies. Many of the same sets of circumstances can lead to prosecution for child endangerment, child abuse or both. However, the crime of child abuse is directed specifically at physical abuse of a child. It is defined in California Penal Code section 273d as inflicting cruel or inhuman corporal punishment on a child, or causing any injury to a child, which results in a traumatic condition.

While child abuse is directed squarely at the physical abuse of children, whether sexual or otherwise; child endangerment encompasses both physical and mental suffering of a child, as well as the health and wellbeing of a child.

For example, if a an adult caring for a child fails to adequately feed or dress a child, such that they become malnourished or suffer from exposure, that person cannot be charged with child abuse, but they can be charged with child endangerment. Likewise, if an adult with a child in their care exposes that child to domestic violence, or some other type of violence, they can be charged with child endangerment, but not child abuse. If that adult physically beats the child, they can be charged with both child endangerment and child abuse. 

How Does a Prosecutor Prove Child Endangerment:

To prove that the defendant is guilty of assault under Penal Code Section 273a, the prosecution must prove the following facts or elements:

(1) The defendant (a) willfully inflicted physical pain or mental suffering on a child that is unjustifiable, or (b) willfully caused or permitted a child to suffer physical pain or mental suffering that is unjustifiable, or (c) caused or permitted a child in their care or custody to be injured, or (d) caused or permitted a child in their care or custody to be placed in a dangerous situation; and

(2) The defendant was criminally negligent (if accused of (b), (c) or (d)); and

(3) The defendant's actions were not part of reasonable discipline of their child;


Child Endangerment is a type of crime commonly known as a wobbler. Meaning it can be charges as either a misdemeanor or a felony. The type of treatment it receives depends on the circumstances surrounding the crime.

Different factors, such whether the circumstances and conditions were likely to produce great bodily harm or death, are all considered by the prosecutor, who then decides whether to proceed with misdemeanor or felony changes.

A misdemeanor can result in the following penalties:

(1) Up to 4 years, but not less than 2 years, summary probation;

(2) Up to one year in county jail; and/or

(3) A fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1000.)

A felony can result in the following penalties:

(1 Up to 5 years, but not less than 2 years, formal probation;

(2) Two (2), four (4) or six (6) years in state prison; and/or

(3) A fine of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000.)

Additional Penalties:

If a person is convicted of child endangerment, and is granted probation, they face more than just jail/prison time, probation and/or fines.

Following the successful completion of probation, anyone convicted of child endangerment must:

(1) be subject to a court protective order. This protects the victim from any other threats or violent acts, and if necessary or appropriate, the order can impose exclusion from a residence or a requirement to stay-away; and

(2) complete at least one year of a treatment counseling program for child abusers, to begin immediately after probation is granted;

(3) pay all reasonably imposed fees that are due to the counseling program

If the court determines that the interests of justice are not served by imposing these additional conditions, it may waive them.


False Accusation:

When child endangerment is suspected, police are often quick to act and make an arrest before thoroughly investigating. This has led to more than one case in which a caregiver, parent or other family member has been falsely accused of child endangerment. On occasion ex-spouses, spouses or ex-boyfriends/girlfriends have been known to make false allegations out of anger, or a desire for revenge. It is also not unheard of for an allegation of child endangerment to come from a miscommunication or misunderstanding between spouses or other family members.

The Act Was Not Willful:

The crime of child endangerment requires intent on the part of the defendant. They must have either intended to place a child in a dangerous situation, or intended to inflict injury. If the defendant can demonstrate that they did not intentionally inflict an injury or place the child in a dangerous situation than they can't be convicted of child endangerment. It may also be sufficient if the defendant can show they were unaware that they were putting a child in danger, or creating a potential for an injury to be inflicted. It is important to note, however, that any claim of ignorance as to the dangerous situation in which a defendant places a child, or the consequences of their actions, must be reasonable. If a caregiver is reckless with a child, or willfully ignorant, this type of defense will likely fail.

Parentefendant was using reasonable corporal punishment to discipline their child they can't be found guilty of child endangerment. If, however, a court determines that a parent has gone beyond what is reasonable, they may still be convicted of child endangerment as well as child abuse.

There is no bright-line rule to determine what constitutes reasonable corporal discipline. A court will look at the facts and circumstances of a case, and make a determination. There are, however, certain relevant inquiries that help a court make that determination. Was the punishment warranted at the time? Were other, non-violent methods of discipline attempted prior? Does the punishment seem appropriate for the behavior the parent was attempting to correct, or does it seem excessive? A court will look at the specific facts of the case, taking into account the arguments made by attorneys for both sides, and make a determination. If the court determines that the punishment was reasonable, it will not convict the parent of child endangerment. 

Actual Case:

Sally was the step-mother of a seven year old girl, Tania.  Bill was Tania’s dad.  There was a contentious relationship between Bill and his former spouse.  One time after Tania had spent time with Bill and Sally Tania’s mother noticed that there were some marks on the back of Tania’s legs.  Tania told her mother that Sally had hit her with a hanger.  Tania reported the marks to the police as possible child abuse.

As it turned out, Tania was a very defiant child and often was disobeying reasonable requests of Sally and Bill.  Sally showed a lot of restraint, but one time she did start to give Tania a spanking with her open hand.  During the spanking Tania started struggling and as a result the spanking left marks on her legs.

I gathered a number of letters of support for Sally.  I had Sally enter parenting classes.  I gathered school information for Tania demonstrating that she got in a lot of trouble in school.

As a result I was able to convince the District Attorney to offer a diversion program to Sally.  After a year the charges against Sally were dismissed.  As a result of this disposition Sally was able to keep her job as a school bus driver.

How We can Help:

We, at Foos Gavin Law Firm are an aggressive, dynamic team, dedicated to getting you the best results possible on your case.  We scour the police report to determine any issues that will benefit you.  We go over every detail of the case with you to help plan a strategy that we can all buy into.  We work with the best investigators to get to the bottom of any evidence that will help your case.  We employ excellent expert witnesses, if necessary, to further our goals.

I, David Foos, have 40 years’ experience representing people accused of crimes.  I have been a Deputy Public Defender for 8 years, and then spent 16 years on the bench as a Judicial Officer that heard criminal and civil matters.  I have developed relationships and knowledge and bring all my skill and contacts to bear to achieve success in your case.  Please contact me at 916-770-3500 or by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to discuss your case.  The initial consultation is at no cost to you.

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