Child Protection
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What are the penalties and legal defenses for child endangerment?

“I hereby find all parties culpable of these matters as charged, so I choose to convey the maximum levy for these violations and do therefore deem that you be sent to a holy, yet awful place of execution wherein you shall be put to death.” - Judge Alvin Valkenheiser sentences 4 people to death.

Of course, the above story is a joke, in fact, it is from the movie: “Nothing But Trouble” featuring Dan Akroyd, Chevy Chase, John Candy, and Demi Moore, and if you recall, the judge had just sentenced them to death because he was a banker, not because he endangered a child.


There are real life penalties in accordance with California sentencing guidelines and Penal Code 273(a) that may apply to a defendant that is charged and convicted of child endangerment. These penalties vary based upon the circumstances which will be explained in the following paragraph. 

Child endangerment is punished as either a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the circumstances of the case and state law. The difference between a misdemeanor and felony charge often rests upon whether the child was exposed to significant harm or placed in a particularly dangerous situation. If there was no risk of great bodily harm or death, child endangerment is generally charged as a misdemeanor and the maximum sentence imposed may be:

  • Up to One (1) year in the county jail; and/or
  • A fine of up to $10,000

In the event the presence of great bodily harm or even death are present, then child endangerment will be charged as a felony carrying the following maximum sentence:

  • Two, four, or six years in a California state prison; and/or
  • A fine of up to $10,000

Another possible sentence may be probation. Courts may also order someone convicted of child endangerment to serve a probation sentence. Probation typically lasts at least a year and requires the convicted person to regularly report to a probation officer, as well as take other actions such as attending family counseling and refraining from further illegal activity. Violating the terms of probation can result in the court ordering a jail or prison sentence.

Finally, termination of parental rights may be imposed upon a person receiving a conviction of child endangerment. If a parent or legal guardian is convicted of child endangerment, the court may strip the parent of parental rights. In this situation, either the other parent will retain sole parental rights, or if there is no other parent, the court will appoint a new guardian to care for the child. The child may also be placed with the state child services agency until a new guardian can be appointed.

Legal defenses

There may be a few legal defense options as well, unlike Chevy Chase striking a deal with Judge Valkenheiser to marry his sweet niece (John Candy) to avoid a conviction and death sentence, consulting with an experienced attorney is your best option. Below, is a short list of possible legal defenses for a charge of child endangerment:

  • Didn’t intentionally happen;
  • Defendant was disciplining his or her child;
  • Defendant was a victim of a false allegation; 
  • Another was responsible for the child; and/or
  • Defendant was not the person that caused the injury or endangered the child

Regardless of the classification of the offense, it is important that you seek the assistance of competent legal counsel to help you best understand your legal defense while identifying an outcome that best minimizes your risk. We here at the H Law group patiently await your call.

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