In Florida, there is a criminal statute that addresses the neglect of a child. The statute is problematic because it is broadly written. The effect is that police officers have very broad discretion to arrest a person for child neglect. And prosecutors similarly have wide discretion when deciding whether to file charges. As a result, a police officer’s opinion, normally based on very limited information, about how a parent should raise or deal with a child takes precedence over the parent in response to situations that may or may not involve actual negligence.
The Florida statute does not just apply to parents. Any caregiver who neglects a child can be charged with child neglect in Florida. Child neglect is a serious felony charge. It becomes more serious if the child is injured as a result of some incident relating to the alleged neglect. If there is no injury, child neglect is still a third degree felony. It is a serious charge for a crime that may be reasonable parental conduct that a police officer just disagrees with.
For example, we have handled several cases where a parent decides a child or children are old enough to be left alone at home for a period of time. Something happens, maybe there’s a knock at the door or the kid breaks something and cannot reach the parents, the kid panics and ultimately the police respond to the home. If whichever police officer responds to this situation decides the kid should not have been left alone, not knowing the history and circumstances of the kid and the parents, then the parents will get arrested for a serious felony charge. And we find that some police officers do not like responding to situations and coming away empty handed. The old- I will arrest these people and let the lawyers and the judge figure it out approach. This is not an uncommon scenario.
In a recent case near Jacksonville, Florida, a defendant was charged with child neglect after he allowed a four year child to walk down the stairs. The child fell and was seriously injured. The crime of child neglect requires a person to fail to provide care, services or supervision to a child to maintain the child’s health that a prudent person would consider necessary for the child’s well being. It can also involved a failure to protect a child from abuse or neglect, but that was not the case here.
As you can see, the definition of child neglect is very broad. Essentially, if the state thinks a person did not act as a “prudent” person would and the child was at risk or actually injured, the state can charge a person with a felony. Since all children are different at various ages and some kids are better at different things than others, it is safe to say that no one knows what a child can handle better than the parents. However, the police often show up to these situations and make hasty decisions about what was best for the child, without knowing the history and characteristics of the child, and a felony arrest results. And as usual, the more a child is injured, the more likely someone will get arrested, although the injury and the liability for the crime are not necessarily related.
In this case, the defendant was arrested, charged and convicted at trial. The criminal defense lawyer appealed and argued the judge should have directed a verdict of not guilty before the case ever went to a jury. The appellate court agreed and ruled that the state could not prove the defendant was criminally negligent by letting the kid walk down the stairs. Criminal negligence requires a flagrant disregard for the safety of the child. The child had gone down the stairs many times in the past. That fact alone should have resulted in the charges being thrown out. The appellate court noted that to convict a person for a serious felony based on these facts would put parents all over Florida at risk for all sorts of activities kids do that come with some risk of injury but that they accomplish successfully every day. As a result, the defendant was acquitted of the child neglect charge.