Articles Posted in Child Endangerment

Audience_-_Alberti_Flea_Circus,_MerleFest_2013Child endangerment laws in Chicago have not always had the best reception given the fact they have the power to take children away from their biological parents and even throw those parents in prison. There are cases where the facts are so harrowing that even the defense attorney is moved to take more precautions than usual due to public outcry. The principles of the laws as they stand are fairly simple. First and foremost, children are recognized as vulnerable members of society who need and deserve some level of protection. The highest priority for the law enforcement agencies is the protection of the rights and interests of the child in question even if that means the breakup of the natural family. The tricky element is that the enforcement authorities are not infallible. They do make mistakes and when they do, all hell breaks loose with the public ready to pounce.

Controversial Laws with Far-Reaching Consequences for All Involved

The case may have civil, family and criminal court elements all mixed together. For example, the parent or guardian may end up as a defendant in a serious criminal case that could lead to life imprisonment in the worst cases. In sentencing, the courts are guided by the need to express public outrage at the circumstances of the case and also deter others who might be thinking of doing the same. That does not mean that the person who has been charged with a stigmatizing crime such as child endangerment loses their human rights. For example, the presumption of innocence is embedded in the law but is often broken by the media who enjoy the more sensational aspects of these cases. That is how these cases have become so terrifying that defendants often fail to mount an effective defense even if all other indications are that they are not guilty of the crime for which they have been accused.

We have all seen shocking stories in the news about babies dying after being left in a hot car, or less commonly, a cold car. What we do not hear about as often is the number of pets that die every year from extreme heat or cold when left alone in a car for too long or outside for too long.

Most people would never do anything to intentionally hurt their pets, but sometimes mistakes in judgments are made. Is it ok to leave Fido in the car at 4 pm while you run a five-minute errand?  Probably. Even then, however, there could be issues. If it is over 90 degrees outside, even five minutes in the car is too long. You never know what will happen that can keep you away from your car longer than the intended five or ten minutes. You can never be sure something bad will not happen. A new law is an attempt to raise awareness of this issue and lower the incidence of Illinois residents leaving pets in cars.

What Does the Law Provide?

A Chicago woman was charged with child endangerment following the beating death of her 16-month-old son at the hands of her boyfriend. The mother was charged after evidence showed that she had been aware that the boyfriend was allegedly burning her son while he cared for him, but did not get treatment for the injuries and continued to leave the boy in her boyfriend’s care.

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Illinois Child Endangerment and the Requirement of Knowingly

A person endangers the life or health of an Illinois child when she knowingly:

  • Causes or permits the life or health of the child to be endangered, or
  • Causes or permits a child to be placed in circumstances that endanger his life or health

As I have discussed in posts on other crimes, whether the defendant’s action was done “knowingly” is a specific element of the crime. In order to gain a conviction, the prosecution must be able to prove that the defendant left her son with the defendant knowing that his life and health were in danger.

In this case, the defendant’s family members on different occasions noticed the burn marks on the child and suggested she take the boy to the hospital. After her arrest, the defendant said she did not follow their advice because she was afraid child protective services would take him and her other three children away from her. She believed the burns were from a space heater in the family’s home. An autopsy on the boy showed a brain injury, broken and fractured ribs and internal damage to organs.

But just because the defendant was aware of the burn marks does not mean she was aware that her son’s life was in danger at the hands of her boyfriend. Nor does the presence of these other injuries prove that she was aware that her son’s life was in danger. There are a number of different factors that could show that the defendant had no idea her son was being harmed by her boyfriend. Such factors, which could be uncovered following an extensive review of the evidence and witness interviews, include:

  • Whether the other children showed evidence of injury;
  • Whether the burn marks on the child’s body looked to be caused by accidental touching of the space heater;
  • Whether the boy was born prematurely or had other birth trauma, which could explain some of the brain injuries;
  • Whether the fractures, broken bones and brain injuries occurred on the day of death or prior;
  • Whether the boy exhibited any changes in behavior that could have alerted his mother to the fact that he suffered a brain injury, or;
  • Whether the child had recently been in a car or other accident that may have accounted for the internal injuries.

The presence of any one of these factors would raise reasonable doubt as to whether the defendant knowingly caused or permitted her son’s life to be endangered, and could be enough to win an acquittal or reduction of charges.

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A Chicago man was arrested last week after shooting his ex-girlfriend in the thigh; he also shot the girlfriend’s mother, who is a Chicago police officer, numerous times, and kidnapped his son. Charges are pending, but it is likely the man faces at minimum charges of attempted murder, aggravated assault with a weapon and kidnapping. When arrested, the defendant allegedly admitted to the shootings, asking police, “Did I kill her?” and saying, “I didn’t want this to happen, I didn’t want it to go this far.”

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Defense when Defendant Admits to Crime

In all criminal defense cases, the defense attorney’s goal is to get the best possible result for his client. The ultimate goal is an outright acquittal, where the defendant is found not guilty and walks out of the courthouse a free man. Yet in some cases, all the available evidence points to the defendant’s guilt, so an acquittal is not a viable defense strategy. This does not mean, however, that the defendant has no options – and it is these cases where an experienced criminal defense attorney can make all the difference.

We will assume, for this discussion, that the defendant’s statements to the police upon his arrest were in fact made, and that they are a true admission of his guilt. That confession, coupled with both shooting victims likely being able to identify him as the shooter, the defendant and girlfriend’s son being found in his custody, and the gun and spent casings being found in his car – assume again they are a match for the weapon used – all point to his guilt, and would make it difficult to argue a case of mistaken identity, accidental misfiring or self-defense.

The goal of the criminal defense attorney in this case, then, would be to work to get all or some of the charges reduced or dropped. The kidnapping charge has the potential to be reduced to child endangerment or dropped entirely. Technically the defendant’s actions meet the definition of aggravated kidnapping – he transported his son (because he did not have visitation with his son at the time, he is considered to have kidnapped him) while armed with a firearm and while discharging a firearm that caused great bodily harm to another person.

However, a case could be made that at the moment of the kidnapping, the defendant was actually acting in the child’s best interest. The child’s mother and grandmother had just been shot – leaving him alone and frightened in the middle of a crime scene was potentially more dangerous than the defendant removing him from the scene. The fact that the boy was soon found unharmed at the home of another family member adds additional support to reducing or dropping that charge.

The defendant is also allegedly a Gangster Disciple, a notorious Chicago-area gang. The prosecution may be willing to enter into a plea agreement for a reduced sentence in the defendant were willing to testify against any other current gang members. The defendant may also qualify as a participant in Chicago’s Gang Intervention Probation or Gang Violence Reduction Strategy programs.

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The recent indictment of Minnesota Viking’s running back Adrian Peterson on charges of child abuse, which stemmed from his admission that he disciplined his young son with a switch, is raising questions over just what constitutes corporal punishment, and when it crosses the line from discipline to child abuse.

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Under Illinois law, it is considered child abuse if a parent “inflicts excessive corporal punishment” upon his or her child. The use of the qualifier “excessive” makes clear that a Chicago parent is allowed to use corporal punishment when disciplining his or her child. But the law fails to define what pushes the corporal punishment, which may include spanking, hitting, pinching, slapping, or any other type of action with the intent of inflicting pain, from permissible to excessive.

The Illinois courts have dealt with the issue of corporal punishment at various times, consistently ruling that “parental rights of discipline are limited by a standard of reasonableness.” But they cite no examples of what constitutes unreasonableness.

How, then, is a parent to know whether discipline of a child will result in criminal charges? Unfortunately, they cannot, since there is no clear cut answer. What is reasonable today may be unreasonable tomorrow, depending on society’s changing views of corporal punishment. It can even vary depending on the type of punishment inflicted, the region, and the terms that are used to describe the punishment.

Cases such as these highlight the importance of obtaining experienced legal counsel. The sole basis of whether a parent’s physical discipline of his or her child qualifies as excessive under the law comes down to a reasonableness standard.

Defending against child abuse charges that stem from corporal punishment requires the ability to not only thoroughly examine all the circumstances to make a case for reasonableness, but also the ability to make a jury understand why the parent believed his or her method of discipline was reasonable. It also requires an examination of medical evidence regarding any alleged injuries, as well as photographs taken following the incident.

Whether the punishment is reasonable will rest in part on the severity of the discipline and whether it caused any injury. That requires a careful examination of any photographic evidence and testimony from qualified medical experts on the lasting impact, if any, from the discipline.

Photographs taken immediately after the incident may show red marks or other visible evidence of the physical discipline. But any type of physical contact can leave an imprint. Instead, the real question is whether that imprint remained, or whether it faded away shortly after the incident occurred. Physical marks that disappear shortly after the discipline would disprove excessive use of corporal punishment. If there are no follow-up photographs, medical testimony from David L. Freidberg’s team of medical experts could help jurors understand that an “injury” that looks bad in a poorly taken photograph actually faded away in an hour or two.

Eyewitness testimony is also important in disproving the excessive nature of the discipline. For example, if the child was running around playing like normal shortly after the punishment, as opposed to limping, that would go toward disproving that the punishment was excessive.  Continue reading

A Berwyn woman was convicted in May of three felony counts of criminal neglect in the 2011 death of her 14-year-old son, who was disabled. She had originally been charged with child endangerment, but those charges were dropped.

The son, who had been found in the front yard of the family home after paramedics were summoned, died of pneumonia. His mother said she was treating him for an illness with antibiotics intended for animals. Police reported that the woman’s house was filthy, overrun with animals (some reportedly dead), and had no running water or working appliances. The woman and her mother, who also lived in the home, denied that the home was unlivable.

Criminal Neglect of Disabled in Illinois

Because of their vulnerability, Illinois law provides special protection to the disabled by making criminal neglect of the disabled a separate offense. In Illinois, the caregiver of a disabled person may be charged with criminal neglect if it can be proved that he or she knowingly:

  • Acted in a manner that caused the person’s life to be endangered, his health to be injured, or a pre-existing condition to deteriorate;
  • Failed to perform acts he knew, or reasonably should have known, were necessary to maintain the disabled person’s life or health;
  • Abandoned the person;
  • Physically abused, harassed, intimidated or interfered with the person’s personal liberty; or
  • Exposed the person to willful deprivation.

The caregiver cannot be charged if she made a good faith effort to provide for the disabled person’s needs, but was unable to provide that care through no fault of her own.

Criminal neglect is a Class 3 felony, unless the neglect resulted in the disabled person’s death, in which case it is a Class 2 felony. If prison time is imposed, it may be anywhere from three to 14 years.

Defense Against Cook County Charge of Criminal Neglect

Defending against charges of criminal neglect of the disabled is a sensitive area. The vulnerable in our society need extra protection, since they either lack the physical or mental capacity to care for themselves. But caring for the disabled can be overwhelming, particularly in the case of the Berwyn mother: she was a single parent raising three other children while simultaneously taking care of her elderly mother.

While being overwhelmed does not excuse failing to provide for a disabled person’s basic needs, it also does not paint a portrait of someone coldly indifferent to the needs of the person in her care. In the case of the Berwyn mother, there were additional factors that likely led to the jury’s decision, namely the home being full of living and dead animals. But for others, the overwhelming task and lack of services could offer mitigating circumstances that could either sway a jury to acquit or cause a judge to impose little to no prison time.

It is a complete defense to criminal neglect of the disabled if the caregiver can show that she tried to provide for the disabled person’s needs but, through no fault of her own, was unable to meet those needs. Illinois consistently ranks in the bottom five in national surveys for access to disability services, meaning well-intentioned caregivers could find themselves suddenly overwhelmed with no place to turn for help.

Other factors that may show that the caregiver was not at fault for failure to provide services could include:

  • Lack of health insurance, or health insurance that does not cover the disabled person’s needs;
  • Lack of income to provide for medical needs not covered by health insurance, or;
  • Documented attempts to acquire services from social service agencies.

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It is a phenomenon that we have seen repeatedly in news stories across the country in recent months: parents leaving their young children unattended in the car while they go shopping or to a job interview. And now a Skokie, Illinois woman has been charged with child endangerment for leaving her toddler in the car while she went to work, a misdemeanor under Illinois law.

Illinois Child Endangerment

Under Illinois law, an individual commits the crime of child endangerment if she knowingly causes the child’s life or health to be endangered, or causes the child to be placed in circumstances where his life or health would be endangered. Child endangerment is a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by less than one year in jail and up to a $2,500 fine.

There is a rebuttable presumption that a child under the age of six is unattended if left in a motor vehicle for more than 10 minutes, and that his life or health was put in danger. A rebuttable presumption means that the trier of fact (either the judge or jury) may assume that the child was left unattended, but the defendant can provide evidence to rebut that presumption.

Children left in cars is common, and most parents are unaware that Illinois has laws against leaving children unattended in motor vehicles. In some cases, there is no neglect at all. Call it a momentary lapse in judgment, or in some cases even an unfortunate accident.

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Of course, there are cases of truly neglectful parents who place their child’s life and health in danger – parents who go off drinking, doing drugs or gambling. But for others, like the ones mentioned above, it is an accident, or a choosing of the lesser of two evils. What type of defense is there against these charges? Defense of both of these types of incidents involves looking at the specific facts of the case to determine if the parent knew that he was leaving the child alone and if he did in fact leave the child alone.

For the parent who forgets that their child was in the car, the charge of child endangerment rests on the word “knowingly”. If the parent can prove that he did not realize he had left his child in the car, then he cannot have knowingly placed the child’s life or health in danger.

For the parent who leaves the child for a short time, defense would hinge on whether the child was truly unattended. Illinois law states that for purposes of leaving a child unattended, the child must have been out of sight of the adult. For instance, if the parent ran in to the bank, could he see the car and the child at all times, perhaps through a window or a door? Did the parent have the ability to see or hear the child from inside the building, perhaps through the use of a monitor left in the car that was able to be seen or heard through the parent’s cell phone? If the parent could prove that he was, in fact, ‘tending to’ the child, then he cannot be charged with child endangerment.  Continue reading