California Child Abandonment Laws: Background and History

By Claire Gillespie

Updated December 24, 2019

Mom scolds little daughter sitting on couch


Under California child abandonment laws, the legal rights of a parent who has abandoned her child can be terminated. For this to happen, certain conditions must apply – the court does not abolish parental rights lightly. Those rights may also be terminated by agreement between the parties if one parent no longer wishes to have legal rights and responsibilities for the child.

California Child Abandonment Laws

Section 7822 of the California Family Code is often referred to as the “abandonment” section. It gives an adoptive parent the right to ask the court to terminate the rights of an absent parent and let the adoption go ahead without his consent.

In relation to stepparent adoptions, the law states that an action to terminate parental rights can be brought when one parent has left the child in the care and custody of the other for one year without providing support for the child and communicating with the child. Additionally, it must be the absent parent’s intention to “abandon” the child.

For traditional adoptions (for instance, when adopting a newborn or a child from foster care), an action can be brought when the child has been left (by the sole parent or both parents) in the care and custody of the prospective adoptive parent for at least six months without providing support for the child and communicating with the child. Again, it must be the parent or parents’ intention to “abandon” the child.

When to File a Petition if Parental Whereabouts Is Unknown

If the parents have left the child and their whereabouts are unknown, a petition may be filed after the 120th day following the discovery of the child, and the petition may be heard after the 180th day following the discovery of the child.

Child Abandonment by Agreement

If someone no longer wishes to be the legal parent of a child, it’s still necessary to follow the court process to terminate her parental rights. There is no court form specifically for this purpose, but the court clerk can provide guidance. However, if both parties are in agreement, there is no need for a lengthy, expensive court battle. After the agreement is filed with the family law court, it will become the order, and the parental rights of the parent will be terminated.

The termination of parental rights permanently and irrevocably ends the legal relationship between the parent and the child. This means all rights, including inheritance, custody and visitation, are relinquished. It also means the parent is no longer responsible for child support or liable for any misconduct of the child.

The same rules apply whether there has been abandonment of the child by her father or child abandonment by the mother.

Is Child Abandonment a Crime?

Some confusion may arise over the meaning of child abandonment in California because it may refer to the family law definition or the crime referred to as child abandonment in the California Penal Code. Under this law, if the court finds that a parent of a child intentionally fails to provide necessary clothing, food, shelter, medical or other remedial care for his child, he is guilty of a misdemeanor. The punishment is a fine of up to $2,000 and/or up to one year in county jail.

On the other hand, someone who is ruled to have abandoned their child under the California Family Code will not typically face criminal charges. It is not a crime for a parent to fail to communicate with his child for an extended period of time. However, he may be criminally charged if he has been ordered to financially support the child (whether by paying child support or through some other means), and he fails to do so. The other parent could file a motion to hold him in contempt for violating a court order.