What Are Virginia Child Abuse Laws?

I frequently meet with distraught parents who have been charged with child neglect or abuse. In most cases, these are loving parents who either lacked the skills and resources to effectively care for their children; or in many cases these are parents being accused of something they simply did not do.

These parents and guardians are confused and scared, so it is important first and foremost to have an understanding of the Virginia Code as it relates to child abuse and neglect. The good news is that I am going to go over much of it in this article. The bad news is that it is still terribly complex (as you will no doubt see).

The bottom line is that if you are facing any charge in Virginia relating to abuse or neglect of a child, you need to contact us right away.

That being said, here is the rundown:

The Commonwealth's Attorney always has the liberty to charge crimes against children under the general statutes, whether it is any of the following:

These types of charges are discussed elsewhere on this website, so I will not go into them further here. Instead, I want to focus on the types of charges that are specifically directed at abuse and neglect of children.

Felony Child Abuse Cases

The most serious child abuse charge is under Virginia Code Section 18.2-371.1, Abuse and Neglect of Children. Within this code section are two different offenses, the more serious is a class 4 felony, carrying up to 10 years in the penitentiary. The lesser offense is a class 6 felony, carrying up to 5 years in the penitentiary.

Both offenses require that the accused be the "parent, guardian, or other person responsible for the care of a child under the age of 18." So you can see one possible defense right there, if you do not fit that definition under the law, you cannot be convicted of either offense (although you may still be guilty of another offense, such as assault and battery).

Class 4 Felony Charges for Child Abuse

The code requires that the accused "willful act or omission or refusal to provide any necessary care... causes serious injury to the life or health of such child" to be guilty of the class 4 felony. The code defines "serious injury" as including, but not limited to:

  • Disfigurement
  • A fracture
  • A severe burn or laceration
  • Mutilation
  • Maiming
  • Forced ingestion of dangerous substances
  • Life-threatening internal injuries

Unless the accused's act or failure to act directly causes one of these conditions or a comparable condition, they cannot be convicted of the class 4 felony.

Class 6 Felony Charges for Child Abuse

That being said, the code allows for a lesser offense within the same statute for a class 6 felony. The code provides that any parent, guardian, etc. whose "willful act or omission in the care of such child was so gross, wanton, and culpable as to show a reckless disregard for human life shall be guilty of a class 6 felony."

As you can see, there is no actual injury required under this part of the code. As long as the responsible adult's conduct showed reckless disregard for the child's life, they can be convicted of this less severe (but still very serious) charge.

Is there a difference between child abuse and neglect?

There are two theories for conviction for both of these felony charges. One is a specific act; the other is a failure to act. In other words, it is not always a defense to say "I didn't do anything."

The idea is that a responsible adult has an obligation to act under certain circumstances. Doing nothing is sometimes not acceptable. A good way of looking at this would be to think of a firearm in the home. A responsible parent ought to secure firearms in the home, particularly where the children are of an age where they may be curious but not yet capable of understanding the consequences of using a firearm.

For this reason, a parent might be charged under one of these statutes for failure to secure a firearm if the result of such failure was the death of a third party at the hands of an armed child. This is just an example, and should not be considered as controlling or limiting in any way.

Misdemeanor Child Abuse Cases

Cases involving neglect and abuse of children are not always felonies. In fact, in most child abuse and neglect cases emerge as misdemeanors. Code Section 18.2-371 is the basic Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor statute in Virginia.

This statute makes it a class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to 12 months in jail, for any person over 18 years of age who "willfully contributes to, encourages, or causes any act, omission, or condition which renders a child delinquent, in need of services, in need of supervision, or abused or neglected."

This is still a serious offense, but far less serious than the felonies discussed previously. These cases typically involve a lack of supervision, or perhaps even active facilitation, on the part of an adult which causes a child to engage in illegal or dangerous conduct. These cases often involve allowing minors access to drugs or alcohol.

Child Labor Offenses

There is a final way in which these types of charges can be brought in Virginia, although it is rarely used. Within the Child Labor section of the code is Section 40.1-103, which prohibits any "person employing or having custody" of a child causing or permitting the life of the child to be endangered or the health of the child to be injured.

Violation of this section is a class 6 felony, punishable by up to 5 years in prison. This is an unusual charge, given that it falls under the child labor prohibitions, but it is brought from time to time.

Contact Our Firm for Help

As you can see, there are myriad ways that Virginians can be charged with abuse or neglect of a child. These cases are exceedingly difficult, because invariably the parents or guardians love their children and the best for them. If you are facing these types of charges, do not wait... contact us right away. We are here to help!

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