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What is child endangerment?

Posted by Christopher Martens | Jan 31, 2024 | 0 Comments

According to California Law, under the Penal Code 273a PC, child endangerment involves exposing a child under 18 years of age to unjustifiable and unacceptable danger, suffering, or pain. An individual who exposes the child to an unreasonable and absurd risk of harm will be liable to be charged, no matter if the child suffers physical harm or not.

Child abuse and child endangerment are often used interchangeably. However, the Penal Code 273d, California's child abuse law is different and must not be confused with it.

What constitutes “child endangerment” in California?

Charges can be brought against anyone. Not just the parents, but anyone can be accused. In most cases, the adult is an individual who has a minor or a child under the age of 18 in his/her care.

Following are the things which if an adult commits, child endangerment can be charged against them:

  • Causes or enables a minor to suffer unreasonable mental as well as physical pain;
  • Willfully causes or enables a minor to get injured; or
  • Willfully causes or enables a minor to get into a difficult or dangerous situation.



Examples of behaviors and actions that can result in an individual being charged with child endangerment in California are mentioned below:

  • Leaving a knife or a dangerous gun within reach of a child, where a child can easily access it;
  • Leaving a minor under the supervision of a babysitter having a history of bad and abusive behavior;
  • Violating the Penal Code 653 by tattooing a minor, or
  • Failing to provide the right medical treatment to a child who is extremely sick.

(Please be informed that under California's “child neglect” law, Penal Code 270 PC, it is the right of a parent to legally seek “faith-based” healing for their child. With that being said, if the child is extremely sick or is at risk of death, the parents in that scenario are required to get medical assistance for their child. If a parent deliberately does not provide medical treatment to a child, they may confront several "domestic violence" charges, which may also include child endangerment).

A person is violating California's “child endangerment” law if they are deliberately placing or exposing a child to a risky situation.

Penalties under 273a PC

Under PC 273a, the punishment will depend upon the severity and the risk of whether the child includes a serious physical injury or death.

In case there is no possibility of either of these aforementioned situations, the offense would be considered a minor wrongdoing or a California misdemeanor crime. The following are the penalties for misdemeanor child endangerment:

  • Get jailed for a period of up to one (1) year in county jail and/or
  • Pay fine of up to $1,000

Punishment when the minor is at risk of death or great bodily harm

In case there was a risk of serious physical harm or death, child endangerment ultimately becomes the California “wobbler” offense. At the prosecutor's discretion, a "wobbler" may be charged as either a felony or misdemeanor.

If the "wobbler" is charged as a felony, they will get the punishment of:

  • Being imprisoned for Two (2), four (4), or six (6) years in California state prison, and/or
  • Pay fine of up to $10,000

Probation for a child endangerment conviction

In some cases, the judges will sentence a defendant to a probation period. Depending upon the charges, it will either be:

  • Felony probation (which is also referred to as "formal" probation), or
  • Misdemeanor probation ( which is also known as the "informal" or "summary" probation).

A defendant who has particularly been sentenced to probation will serve little or even no time in jail or prison. However, there will be certain conditions of probation that will be imposed by the judge after a PC 273a conviction.

These conditions may include mandatory counseling, protective (restraining) orders, and, if relevant and suitable, random drug testing as well.

  1. How does California law define child endangerment?

To convict someone under Penal Code 273a, certain elements of the crime must be proven by the prosecutor. Every element presented must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

1.1 The “elements of the crime” of child endangerment

The following are the elements that must be proven by the prosecutor:

  1. If the defendant did ONE of the following:
  • Willfully inflicted or caused unreasonable physical and mental pain, torture, and suffering on a child,
  • Willfully enabled and caused a child to suffer unreasonable and unacceptable physical and mental pain,
  • While having custody or care of a child willfully enabled and caused the child's health to be affected and get injured, or
  • While having custody or care of a child, willfully enabled or caused the child to fall into a dangerous situation where the health and life of the child was at risk or endangered;


  1. While enabling and causing the child to suffer or be endangered, or injured, the defendant was criminally negligent;


  1. The minor's parent is the defendant, and he or she was not sensibly disciplining the child.


An additional element to prove felony endangerment

One additional element must also be proved by the prosecutor in case the defendant is charged with Penal Code 273a as a “wobbler.”

In such a scenario, it is required by the prosecutor to prove that the defendant acted in situations that were expected to have a bad outcome, such as causing death or serious physical injury.

It does not matter whether or not the actions of the defendant caused death or harm. The only thing that matters is that there was the probability of these incidents happening.

The meaning of the term “great bodily injury” has been discussed below.

But before moving on to it, let's find out what other legal terms mean

1.2. The legal definition of “willfully.”

Under California law, all those acts that are committed on purpose are referred to as the acts that are done “willfully.”

This certainly does not mean that the defendant intended to cause harm or to break the law. In simple words, this means that the act was carried out by the defendant deliberately, which could have severe outcomes and may have resulted in harm.

Example: Eva is a mother of a two-year-old son, and works as a waitress. Her child is from her former relationship. Along with Eva and her two-year-old son, Eva's boyfriend Hiram also lives with them and has recently moved in with her.

However, Eva has now started to get worried about her son. Whenever she goes to work and leaves her son with Hiram, accidents tend to occur. Eva's little boy has suffered a broken arm, a black eye, and even severe burns. But, still Eva needs to go to her workplace, and therefore she leaves her son under the care of Hiram.

One day, while Eva is not at home and is gone for her job, Hiram deliberately shakes the boy extremely hard, which results in the little boy's death. Hiram, therefore, has been convicted of Penal Code 273ab(a), an assault that caused the death of a child.

In addition to this, even though Eva did not have any intentions to cause harm to her son or break the law, she is still convicted of child endangerment as she willfully left her son under the care of her violent boyfriend Hiram.

Under California Penal Code 273a, leaving a child under the care of someone abusive or violent may constitute child endangerment.

1.3. Unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering

The term "unjustifiable physical or mental suffering" refers to pain that:

  • Is not fairly required, or
  • Excessive during the circumstances

1.4. The legal meaning of “criminal negligence.”

Criminal negligence includes more than carelessness, poor attention, or an error of judgment. When an individual engages in criminal negligence, they:

  1. Act in a reckless manner that is significantly different from how an ordinarily cautious individual would act in a similar situation.
  2. The individual's actions amount to a disregard for the safety of others or indifference to the implications of his or her actions.
  3. A sensible person would have recognized that acting in that manner would almost certainly result in serious harm to others.

To put it another way, the activity becomes "criminal negligence" when it is so severe, gross, or irresponsible that it defies logic.


Joey, Catherine's hyperactive seven-year-old son, is an example. Joey is notorious for not following Catherine's orders.

Joey sprints into a busy roadway one day, ignoring Catherine's requests to slow down. Catherine grabs him and tackles him just when he's about to flee into the street. She does it by knocking him to the floor and severely injuring his skull. Catherine did cause her son bodily harm. However, her actions were reasonable to save her kid from suffering more serious injuries. As a result, Catherine is unlikely to have endangered children.

1.5. Examples of criminal negligence

The present findings are drawn from real-life court proceedings in California. The defendant was found guilty of criminal negligence in the first two cases. There was no evidence of criminal negligence in the second and third incidents.

Where there was evidence of criminal negligence 

Example: For instance, Edward, a guy in his forties, persuades Jason, his 14-year-old neighbor, to play "Russian Roulette." Edward puts one bullet in the rifle, twists the barrel, and delivers it to Jason.

When Jason pulls the trigger, the gun fires and kills him, even though Jason shoots himself, Edward is irresponsible in handing a loaded pistol to a kid and encouraging him to play such games. 

Example: In his house, Brian operates a methamphetamine lab. Throughout the premises, he stores hazardous and very combustible substances. Some are kept in unlocked floor-level cupboards. Brian's 6-year-old stepson resides with him. Brian has committed criminal negligence by enabling a 6-year-old to be exposed to such toxins. 

Where there was no evidence of criminal negligence

It would not be criminal negligence if an action was the outcome of ordinary carelessness, lack of attention, or an error in judgment, regardless of the consequences.

Following is an example from the actual court case:

Example: Isabel, for example, leaves her four little kids (ages 2 to 6) alone at home whilst she goes to a club. A fire breaks out some hours later. Three of the kids are saved by a neighbor, but the two-year-old dies due to the fire.

Isabel was completely irresponsible. However, it was not criminal negligence since a sensible person would not have anticipated the harm caused by her conduct. As a result, she is not accused of endangering children.

1.6. What does "great bodily injury" mean in legal terms? 

By California law, "great bodily harm" is defined as any major or substantial damage. Minor, insignificant, or even mild injuries do not qualify as serious bodily harm.

The prosecutor is more likely to file felony charges if the kid suffers serious bodily injury. Felony charges may be filed if “great bodily harm” happens as a consequence of child endangerment.

  1. How does one go about defending oneself in court? 

Penalties, punishments, and sentences can all be quite different. However, they are mostly determined by whether the defendant's conduct put the kid in danger of "grave bodily damage" or death. 

2.1. Penalties for misdemeanors 

The offense would be a misdemeanor if the defendant's actions did not pose a significant danger of serious bodily harm or death.

As a misdemeanor, PC 273a child endangerment can be punished by:

  • A penalty of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000) and/or
  • up to six (6) months in county prison.

2.2. Probation for misdemeanors 

A court can also punish someone guilty of PC 273a to misdemeanor probation. This is sometimes referred to as "informal" or "summary" probation.

A court in California can award a minimum of 4 years of probation for a child endangerment conviction. A restraining order shielding the claimed victim from additional acts of violence may be part of the probation. This order might contain a "keep away" clause prohibiting the offender from getting in touch with the kid. Even though the kid's household is also the defendant's, the stay-away order may remain.

  • In an attempt to protect the alleged victim from further acts of violence, probation may entail a protective (restraining) order. In this order, a “stay away” provision may be included that will proscribe the defendant from getting into contact with the child. No matter if the child and the defendant have the same house, the stay-away order will apply to that residency as well where the child lives.
  • Successful completion of a one-year court-approved child abuser treatment therapy program.
  • If the defendant had been under the influence of a prohibited drug or alcohol at the time of the crime, there would be additional restrictions. A command to refrain from drug and alcohol usage throughout the term of probation, as well as the possibility of drug screening.

Is it possible to get probation conditions relaxed, canceled, or expunged?  

Every one of the foregoing requirements may be waived by the court if it determines that they are not in the "best interests of justice."

If the offender follows all of the contract terms of probation in the first year or two, the court may award cancellation of probation. Finally, a person who is sentenced to probation may have his or her criminal history in California expunged. Once the defendant has completed the probationary term, he or she can do so.

However, a judge can reject an expungement plea if:

  • The petitioner violated his or her probation, or
  • The petitioner failed to follow all of the contract terms of his or her probation.

2.3. Penalties for felonies 

If there has been a sign of harm, physical damage, or death to the kid, child endangerment becomes a "wobbler" violation. A prosecutor may prosecute a "wobbler" with a misdemeanor or a felony, based on the following factors:

  1. The charges' exact circumstances
  2. The defendant's criminal history (if any).

A felony conviction can have the following consequences:

  • A penalty of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000) or
  • Two, four, or six years in California state prison.

Alternatively, the judge might impose a minimum of four years of formal (felony) probation on the offender. The probationary requirements are much the same as outlined in Section 2.2. above. 

Those defendants who have been sentenced to felony probation also have the opportunity to expunge the conviction, as mentioned above.

In California, the felony child endangerment penalties can include being imprisoned for a period of up to six years. a

2.4. Great bodily injury enhancement

In addition to the punishments listed previously, the defendant might face a "sentencing enhancement." If the kid is badly damaged as a result of the defendant's criminal negligence, an increase may be available.

The relevant increase will result in the following extra and consecutive sentences in California state prison:

  • if the defendant truly and individually inflicted serious bodily injury on the sufferer: an additional and back-to-back three (3) to six (6) years, based on the victim's age and the nature of the harm, or
  • an extra and continuous four (4) years in jail if the kid died as a result of the accused's criminal negligence.

2.5. Penalties for manslaughter or murder 

 When a child is killed as a consequence of endangerment, a prosecutor may opt to pursue more criminal charges. The following are examples of such charges:

  • Involuntary manslaughter under Penal Code 192 (b) PC
  • voluntary manslaughter under Penal Code 192 (a) PC
  • second-degree murder under Penal Code 18 PC

2.6. California's "three strikes" statute and child endangerment

Under California's "Three Strikes" statute, a felony child endangerment charge can be considered a "strike." If the youngster was seriously injured, it would be considered a strike.

A “second striker” also seems to have a strike on their criminal record and is charged with any crime afterward. As a result, the punishment for the subsequent offense will be double what it would have been otherwise. If the offender is a "third striker," he or she will be sentenced to a required minimum of 25 years. 

  1. Legal defenses to California child endangerment charges

There are a lot of common legal defenses out there that can be used in cases related to the Penal Code 273a. These may include failure to adhere to California's search and seizure laws or any kind of police misconduct.

With that being said, there are a few particular defenses that specifically apply to child abuse, neglect, and endangerment cases.

These may include taking one or more than one position of the below-mentioned positions:

The act wasn't willful or did not amount to criminal negligence.

To secure the PC 273a conviction, the prosecutor needs to prove that the activities conducted by the defendant were certainly willfully and/or with criminal negligence. It must be proven by the prosecutor “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Several different ways are using which an experienced California criminal lawyer can conveniently prove and establish adequate, reasonable doubt for a “non-guilty” verdict (an “acquittal”)

For example, it is possible that the injury was caused by ordinary negligence or an accident. In that scenario, the defendant has not violated the statute.

Example: Kate is at her home cooking dinner as well as watching her three-year-old daughter. Suddenly the phone rings, and Kate goes out of the room to get the phone while putting her knife down in the cutting room. As Kate is out of the room, her three-year-old daughter goes near the knife, picks it up, and then cuts some of her fingers to the bone.

This implies that Kate was negligent, but she can not be regarded as criminally negligent. If there is something more than mere inattentiveness, only then would it be called criminal negligence. Also, a sensible person might not expect a three-year-old child to pick up the knife from the counter and end up cutting her fingers within the short period it took to pick up the phone call.

The defendant was reasonably disciplining his/her child.

Through “reasonable” corporal punishment, it is possible for the parents, and it is their right to discipline their children in California. When a punishment involves physical punishment or the punishment that is inflicted on the body, it is referred to as “Corporal punishment.” Following are a few of the examples:

  • Spanking,
  • Using a paddle or belt to discipline a child,
  • Not providing a supper to a child and sending them to bed,
  • Confining or restricting a child in his or her room.

In some cases, the experienced California defense attorney may assure or convince the judge, jury, and/or prosecutor that the defendant was only trying to discipline the child reasonably. 

Example: Betty has gone shopping with her five-year-old son. There, her son outbursts and throws a temper tantrum in the changing room. Betty then picks up the belt that she brought into the changing room, and using that belt; she smacks her five-year-old son on his thighs.

While this scene happens, the sales clerk witnesses it and then calls the security guard of the store. The security guard calls the police, who arrest Betty, and then she is charged with PC 273a. Now in such a scenario, the lawyer of Betty can argue that she was only trying to reasonably discipline her child and, therefore, under such a situation, she should not be held guilty.

False accusations

There are various examples of child endangerment cases that were started with just false accusations. Due to the manipulation by the other parent, a child can sometimes make a false allegation.

It is possible that the child is infuriated and wants to take a kind of revenge from the parent. This usually takes place when a parent has a new partner or during the divorce.

Or, it is also possible that the caretaker of the child makes a false accusation just because he or she wants to save herself or cover up his or her abuse.

Whatever the causes may be, it is always true that in the end, the outcome is the same. Police would not want to be held responsible for disregarding the potential harm to a child. Therefore, they are liable to arrest the individual who has been accused.

How we fight false allegations

Whenever we receive a client who has been falsely accused of Penal Code 273a child endangerment, we check and comprehensively review all of the evidence that may be useful in proving their innocence.

Intervening every person who may have witnessed the incident is also included in it. To get the evidence that the defendant is a good caretaker or parent, we will interview other people as well who may be close to the defendant or have any kind of relation with them.

Depending upon the type of allegations, we may also try to gather the school/employment records, criminal records, or other various records of the people who may potentially be responsible for the event.

In addition to this, we may also carefully search and check the social media accounts of the individuals who may potentially be involved in it.

Simply put, our highly experienced and skilled lawyers and investigators will leave no stone unturned to find the “exculpatory” evidence.

“Mistake of fact”

In some cases, accusations may arise, where a person who has good intentions misinterprets a particular situation. According to California law, this is referred to as a “mistake of fact.”

California's mandatory reporting law deteriorates and further aggravates this issue. Under this law, it is legally required by the professionals such as the clergy, teachers, and doctors, to report suspected child endangerment to the relevant authorities.

In case they do not report, they will be charged with a misdemeanor. They might be serving some time in jail. For that reason, they are always under severe pressure to report, even if they are slightly suspicious of the child endangerment.

Example: Jake is the son of Phil. Jack returns home from school, and there are bruises and cuts on the side of his face. He tells his father, Phil, that he was involved in an accident and fell off his bike. The very next day, one of the cuts on Jack's face looks like it may have been infected. Because of that, Phil takes his son Jake to the doctor.

The doctor isn't aware of the bike incident. He is suspicious regarding the injury of Jake and thinks that it has been caused due to someone hitting on his face. Therefore, the doctor contacts the social services. Ultimately, Phil's lawyers have been successful in finding a witness who can prove and confirm that the injury on Jake's face was caused because he fell off his bike. However, for the time being, Phil has been arrested and is also charged with child endangerment and abuse.

Someone else endangered the child.

Prosecutors or police who are overzealous and over-enthusiastic would always want to hold individuals accountable when a child may be in any kind of danger. Most of the time, they are making a hasty assessment about who is responsible.

To see how such a thing can happen, let's consider the example discussed previously:

Example: The doctor isn't aware of the bike incident. He is suspicious regarding the injury of Jake and thinks that it has been caused due to someone hitting on his face. Therefore, the doctor contacts the relevant authorities and gets Phil arrested.

After conducting interviews with friends and teachers of Jake at school, Phil's lawyer has successfully discovered that Jake was being bullied at his school. The injury on his face was caused by the group of older boys who hit Jake on his face. The lawyer who is fighting the case on behalf of Phil presents the pieces of evidence to the prosecutor, and as a result, the charges against Phil are dismissed.

About the Author

Christopher Martens

Bio Visalia and Bakersfield criminal defense attorney who has dedicated his life to helping those who have been accused of crimes or injured due to the negligence of others.


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