The definition of “child abuse”, whether used as a legal term or in regular conversation, is not exactly clear. What passed for good, appropriate discipline in the old days could subject someone to serious felony charges and prison time today. Under Florida law, there are different levels of child abuse and some conduct that is close to child abuse but is not considered a crime at all.
In Florida, a parent, or someone assuming the role of the child’s parent, has a right to administer reasonable and non-excessive physical punishment to a child. If the discipline falls into this category, the parent is not guilty of any crime in Florida. So, what does “reasonable and non-excessive” punishment mean? It is hard to say. It may be a decision made first by the prosecutor and then by a judge or jury. When a parent’s conduct towards a child goes beyond “reasonable and non-excessive” punishment, it becomes a crime. The first level of criminal activity when a parent physically punishes a child is the misdemeanor crime of contributing to the dependency of a child. This crime is committed by causing an act that causes the child to be dependent or in need of services and subjects a person to up to a year in jail. A “child” is considered anyone under the age of 18. “Services” could certainly include medical services or the Department of Children and Families.
At the next level, physically punishing or abusing a child can constitute the crime of child abuse which is defined as intentionally causing physical or mental injury to the child or doing something that can reasonably be expected to cause physical or mental injury to the child. When this crime is committed without causing serious injury to the child, it is a third degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison. When the crime of child abuse is committed and the child is tortured or seriously injured, it becomes aggravated child abuse which is a first degree felony punishable by up to thirty years in prison.
There is obviously a huge difference between the misdemeanor crime and the two felony child abuse crimes. However, it is not clear what conduct differentiates the three crimes or what may not be a crime at all. Should the trier of fact focus more on the conduct or the results? What if the child is injured badly, but the conduct was fairly harmless, i.e. where the parent pushes the child but the child trips and hits her head on something and has a serious head injury? What if the conduct seems bad, but the child is not injured at all?
There are a few issues with the crime of child abuse in Florida. First, conduct that used to be considered acceptable can be a serious, although ambiguous, crime today. Second, it is very difficult to tell from reading the various laws what is acceptable punishment versus a low level crime versus a very serious crime with the potential for a lengthy prison sentence.