UPDATED: June 19, 2018
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Child battery is a category of offenses used to describe injuries inflicted on children. Some states label child battery offenses with titles like child abuse and injury to a child, or list it as an aggravated form of assault. Regardless of the state in which the allegation occurs, the objective is to punish more harshly assaults or batteries where children are the victim. Child battery usually requires an affirmative act but some states permit convictions under much broader theories. Because of variations in child battery charges, the range of punishment and defenses can also vary.
Common Child Battery Charges
The most common form of child battery is when someone engages in an intentional act to hurt a child. Headlines have frequented newspapers of a parent or other guardian repeatedly striking a child out of anger. This is a clear cut example of child battery. Other forms of child battery tend to be less clear. Some states authorize child battery convictions on reckless or negligent conduct and not just intentional conduct. Sometimes the distinction between what is reckless and what is an accident makes the application of this type of child battery charge difficult to defend. For example, if a parent allows a small child to ride in a go-kart with him, while unrestrained, yet continues to drive at excessive speeds, then the parent could be charged with recklessly causing an injury to the child if the go-kart crashes. The child battery allegation stems from the parent's disregard of a safety risk.
A lower level of child battery stems not from direct conduct or acts, but from omissions. In this case, child battery is committed not through an intentional act, but is instead caused by not acting when required. For example, if a parent refuses to feed her child for several days and the child becomes ill, she could be charged with child battery by omission.
Child battery charges can also be pled through party language. This is where the main actor (who did the actual hitting, for example) is charged and someone else is also charged for aiding or abetting to the event. If a father intentionally struck his child, and the mother (or someone else with a legal duty) did nothing to stop the child abuse, but instead helped cover up evidence of the abuse, then the mother could potentially be charged as a party to child battery or directly for child battery by omission. With so many types of child battery charges, several defenses are available to refute a battery allegation.
Defenses Against Child Battery Charges
The nature of child battery defenses will usually coincide with the type of child battery charged. However, all levels can include a reasonable discipline defense. Many states will not usurp a parent’s right to use corporal punishment. If a parent can show that the spanking or hitting was reasonable, then the use of the discipline would be a defense to a child battery charge. Some states offer a rather generic reasonable discipline defense to anyone, while others place limitations on the defense. For example, in Indiana, the person claiming the defense has to be a parent or someone in the same status. Claiming to be a temporary babysitter won’t be enough. The courts will usually look at the factors before, during, and after to determine what is reasonable. If a child suffers severe internal injuries after being beaten for making a bad grade on their report card, then the relation of the injury to the child’s conduct can result in a rejection of the defense because of the excessive punishment.
Similarly, many states also offer reasonable medical care defenses. This is where a defendant does not deny the conduct or the injury, but offers a reasonable explanation of how the injury occurred and that reason involved a medical purpose. For example, if a child is injured when a waiter was trying to save him from choking, then the waiter could utilize this defense. This defense negates the intent requirement of a child battery charge. If a child battery charge was based on an omission or a failure to act, then a defendant could have a religious defense if the failure to act was consistent with a recognized religious method. This has been a hotly contested issue where a parent denies modern medical treatment to his child because of religious beliefs.
Other defenses may be available depending on the child’s actions or the nature of the offending conduct. When most people think of child battery, they envision a small child being beaten. However, child battery also applies to older children. Depending on the relative size of the child to a defendant, a defendant may be able to claim self-defense if the child provoked and threatened the defendant, which ended-up necessitating the use of force. If the level of a battery charge is for reckless conduct, then the best defense may not be to deny that the event happened, but rather to try to disprove intent. Essentially the idea is to show that the conduct was purely accidental, rather than reckless or intentional. This type of defense would work best for the go-kart example described above. The conduct of the parent, the history of the activities surrounding the battery, and extent of injuries can greatly influence the effectiveness of this type of defense. The same factors can also influence punishment.
Punishments for Child Battery
Punishment for a child battery charge can be as varied as its defenses. The general concept is that a more aggressive assault or greater injury will result in a higher level of punishment. Some states actually break up the range of punishment by injury and mental state (reckless v. intentional). For example, in Texas, when a child suffers serious and permanent injury because of an intentional act, a defendant can be charged with a first degree felony, carrying a range of punishment from five to ninety-nine years in prison. If a child suffers minor injuries because of an omission or a negligent act, then they could face a much smaller range of punishment, from 180 days to two years in prison.
In addition to prison time, most states will offer probation options depending on the nature of the offense. A defendant charged with nearly killing a child after aggressively hurting a child is not likely to get a chance at probation. However, a parent that committed an isolated act after a bad day at work will probably be afforded the opportunity to be placed on probation and complete an anger management or parenting program. Even though not going to jail is on everyone’s mind when they face these types of charges, an injury to a child allegation can have other serious consequences.
Consequences of Child Abuse Crimes
When a parent or guardian is charged with child battery, they sometimes end up defending a criminal and civil suit at the same time. A child welfare or children’s protection agency can also file a suit or intervene in a pending suit to provide protection for the child. Protective options can include the parent filing for a protective order for the child and a motion to temporarily remove the child from their home.
Before their child is returned, parents are usually required to complete programs like parenting skills classes or family counseling. The parent can expect to be on a criminal probation through the criminal courts, and another type of probation through the civil courts. Even though they have overlapping requirements, the purpose of each process is different. If a parent does not comply with the requirement on either side, then the child welfare organization could petition for a permanent termination of the parent’s right to their child. Even if a parent’s rights are not terminated after a first offense, repeated allegations of child battery can increase the chances of a defendant loosing the rights to their child. Next to sexual battery, this is one of the most direct types of charges that can lead to the termination of parental rights.
Even non-parents can be drawn into a companion civil suit. Child welfare groups focus on the family unity. However, other types of civil suits can arise, usually a personal injury suit. A personal injury suit can pop up when a child suffers an injury in potentially avoidable circumstances. For example, if a football coach continues to deny water to his teenage students, knowing that extreme heat conditions could result in harm, then the coach could be charged for reckless child battery and served with a civil lawsuit if one of the students is seriously injured by a heat stroke.
Child battery is a serious charge which can greatly impact a defendant, their family, and future access to their children. Even though the civil process may seem to resolve the situation, a person accused of child battery should visit with a criminal attorney as they work through the civil process to understand exactly how the two systems can or will affect their parental rights.