What Is Child Abandonment?

By Lindsay Kramer

Updated November 04, 2019

Young boy sitting on a roundabout


Child abandonment is the act of abandoning a child in some way. This can mean literally exiting a child’s life or it can mean refusing to provide for the child’s physical, emotional and psychological needs. Child abandonment is a criminal offense that can lead to penalties like fines and jail time for parents and caregivers who are convicted. Further, a child abandonment charge, even without a conviction, can lead to a parent’s custodial time being altered or her parental rights being terminated altogether.

Child Abandonment Definition

The specific legal child abandonment definition varies from state to state. In some states, like New Jersey, child abandonment is included in the state’s child abuse statute. Other states, like California, have a separate child abandonment statute.

In every state, the legal child abandonment definition is a variation of: A parent or caregiver’s willful desertion of a child with no regard for the child’s well being. Generally, this means failing to provide for the child’s needs and can include instances where, despite the child continuing to reside in the parent’s home, the parent fails to provide adequate food, medical care and emotional support.

Examples of Child Abandonment

Child abandonment takes many forms. A few specific examples of child abandonment include:

  • Failing to maintain regular communication or in-person contact with a child per an existing custody order.
  • Failing to respond to inquiries from Child Protective Services.
  • Leaving a child alone without adequate food, shelter or knowledge of where the parent is going or when he will return. This includes leaving the child with another adult without the parent telling the other adult when he will return.
  • Leaving a child home alone for a prolonged period of time without regard for the child’s sustenance or safety.

An action that may be deemed abandonment when it involves a young child is not necessarily an act of abandonment when it involves an older child. Many states recognize this and include specific ages in their child abandonment definitions. For example, leaving a 2-year-old home alone for any length of time puts the child at risk of harm and may be deemed an act of abandonment, whereas leaving a 14-year-old home alone for a few hours is generally considered normal and acceptable.

Infant Abandonment and Safe Haven Laws

All 50 states have enacted Safe Haven laws in response to instances of infant abandonment. These laws, like child abandonment laws, vary from state to state, but at their core all make it legal and possible for a parent to leave a baby below a specific age with authorities and avoid facing a criminal charge for infant abandonment.

Generally, surrendered infants may be left at hospitals, police stations, firehouses and other government buildings. Safe Haven laws typically do not require the parent to identify herself or the infant in any way. In some states, a parent who gives up her baby under the Safe Haven law permanently loses her parental rights, while in others, she may reclaim them within a specific period of time.

Consequences for Child Abandonment

Because the definition of child abandonment varies from state to state, so do how it is charged and the penalties an individual faces if he is convicted of it. In California, child abandonment is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and up to one year in county jail. In Texas, simple abandonment is a state jail felony punishable by up to two years in jail and a fine. If a Texas parent is found guilty of putting a child at risk of facing serious harm or death through his act of abandonment, though, he may be convicted of a second-degree felony and face up to 20 years in prison and a substantial fine.

Aside from criminal penalties, a parent found guilty of child abandonment faces the prospect of having his parental rights terminated. This means that he is no longer the child’s legal parent and loses all rights afforded to legal parents, such as the right to:

  • Spend time with the child.
  • Make medical decisions on the child’s behalf.
  • Object to the proposed adoption of the child.
  • Pursue child support.