Child abuse and neglect can result in quasi-criminal proceedings against parents and care providers that can seriously disrupt or even terminate the offending individual’s ability and freedom to continue parenting their own children. This area of the law is primarily controlled by the Child Protection Law and the Juvenile Code.
These laws provide a comprehensive scheme for the reporting, investigation, and response to cases of child abuse and neglect. Once allegations are reported, the county prosecutor has the option to file a petition with the juvenile division of the family court which, if proved, result in bringing the child within the jurisdiction of the juvenile court.
The consequences of the petition could result in a temporary disruption of the parent child relationship, as when the child is removed from the home for placement with another suitable family member or in foster care. Some petitions seek termination of the parent child relationship.
The Child Protection Law contains statutory definitions of child abuse and neglect. Child abuse is defined as:
harm or threatened harm to a child’s health or welfare that occurs through non-accidental physical or mental injury, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, or maltreatment, by a parent, a legal guardian, or any other person responsible for the child’s health or welfare or by a teacher, a teacher’s aide, or a member of the clergy.
Neglect is defined in the statute as:
harm or threatened harm to a child’s health or welfare by a parent, legal custodian, or any other person responsible for a child’s health or welfare that occurs through either of the following:
(i) Negligent treatment, including the failure to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, or medical care.
(ii) Placing a child at an unreasonable risk to the child’s health or welfare by failure of the parent, legal guardian, or other person responsible for the child’s health or welfare to intervene to eliminate that risk when that person is able to do so and has, or should have, knowledge of the risk.
Michigan law also codifies the crime of child abuse within the Michigan Penal Code. The various degrees of child abuse range from first to fourth, with first being the most serious and fourth the least.
First Degree Child Abuse
Child abuse in the first degree is a specific intent felony and requires the prosecutor to prove that the defendant knowingly or intentionally caused serious physical or mental harm. The statute defines serious physical harm as an injury that seriously impairs the child’s health or physical well-being. This includes injuries such as fractures, burns, dislocation, sprains, and subdural hemorrhage or hematoma.
In order to prove that serious mental harm has occurred, the prosecutor must show that the child has suffered a demonstrable mental disorder such that their judgment, behavior, or capacity to cope with life is significantly impaired.
Second Degree Child Abuse
Child abuse in the second degree, also a felony, takes three forms. The first is a specific intent crime similar to child abuse in the first degree. Unlike first degree child abuse, second degree abuse requires only that the defendant knowingly or intentionally acted in a way that was likely to cause harm to the child, and not that the child actually be injured.
The second form of this offense eliminates the knowingly or intentionally requirement and instead punishes a defendant whose omission or reckless act caused serious physical or mental harm. The third form of child abuse in the second degree requires that the defendant have knowingly or intentionally have committed an act that was cruel to the child. The statute defines cruel as “brutal, inhuman, sadistic, or that which torments.”
An recent example of second degree child abuse occurred in Macomb County when the parents maintained a house the prosecutor described as a “pig sty”. The couple’s 11-month daughter ate a morphine pill she found on the floor and died.
Regardless of the language that is used, a defendant who is convicted of child abuse in the second degree faces up to ten years of imprisonment. If the defendant has already been convicted of the same offense, he or she faces up to twenty years in prison.
Third Degree Child Abuse
Yet another felony child abuse charge is child abuse in the third degree. Like child abuse in the second degree, third degree child abuse takes various forms. The first form of child abuse in the third degree is identical to child abuse in the first degree except that it does not require serious mental of physical harm.
A defendant can also be charged with child abuse in the third degree if they knowing or intentionally commit an act that posed an unreasonable risk of harm to a child and the child suffered physical harm as a result. Because the level of harm to the child is less severe, the punishment is likewise less severe. Child abuse in the third degree is punishable by imprisonment for up to two years.
Fourth Degree Child Abuse
Child abuse in the fourth degree is a misdemeanor and can result in a sentence of up to one year. The elements of child abuse in the fourth degree are that the defendant caused physical harm to the child through their omission or recklessness or that they knowingly or intentionally committed an act that posed an unreasonable risk of physical harm to the child. There is no need for an actual injury to have occurred to prove child abuse in the fourth degree.
A person convicted of any of these crimes has a high likelihood that they will be placed on the Child Protection Law’s Central Registry. The Central Registry is required by federal law and is maintained by the Michigan Department of Human Services, DHS.
If you or a family member are facing child abuse charges, or have questions about the Central Registry, contact our law firm to schedule a free consultation to discuss your options.