There’s little more stressful and frightening to a parent than to think their ex might be neglecting them while the ex has them in their care. Often parents don’t want to believe something like that would happen, or they worry that the ex will take it badly if the question is raised–and take it out on the children. But neglect of children is a significant cause of long-term emotional damage to a child, and addressing it as soon as possible is strongly recommended for the child’s well-being and yours as well.

It’s important to understand that someone can be accused of neglect if they’re a parent, legal guardian, or caretaker. It doesn’t matter if the birth parents were legally married or not.

What Types of Neglect Are There?

California defines child neglect as negligent treatment which threatens the child’s health or welfare.

California law has two broad categories of neglect:

  • General neglect. General neglect occurs when the responsible adult fails to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, or supervision but where no physical injury to the child has occurred. This can include (but isn’t limited to) not providing enough food even if the parent can afford to, not providing adequate clothing for adverse weather (raingear or parkas), or refusing to provide dental or medical care or medication to a child that’s sick.
  • Severe neglect. These are situations of general neglect where the child is injured or their health is endangered. This includes (but isn’t limited to) malnutrition or lack of medical care to the extent that the child is seriously ill or even in a life-threatening medical crisis.

What Are the Signs of Neglect?

There are many, and a child can have several or one, some milder than others, some more intense than others. But if any of these appear, you’re right to be worried.

  • The child isn’t growing as expected, or their growth rate suddenly slows at a period when they should be growing regularly.
  • The child and their clothing are often dirty beyond what could be expected from normal playing, and they may even have body odor.
  • They don’t have needed clothing or other supplies (for example, no snow boots in a snowy climate).
  • Their school or daycare attendance declines, or you hear reports of sudden changes in school performance.
  • The child demonstrates sudden behavior changes.
  • The child hoards, steals, or guards food or money.
  • There is no record or sign that the child is seeing a medical professional for regular checkups or because of illness or injury.
  • The child has learning or concentration difficulties that can’t be diagnosed as a specific condition.
  • The child becomes unusually quiet and watchful, as if expecting something bad to happen.

Note that there are some exemptions to this. A family that’s living in poverty is not necessarily neglecting the child, unless they deliberately don’t seek out the social services that could help them feed, clothe, and house the child. 

A more complicated area of neglect involves medical care for the child if the parent claims the right to refuse medical treatment because of medical beliefs. The state does have the right to override the parent’s wishes if the parent refuses to give consent and the doctors say the child is at serious risk of harm, could even die without treatment, or is likely to have a good-quality life if the treatment is administered. However, if a child is terminally ill and there’s no chance of recover, doctors can honor the parent’s wishes. These are difficult cases that can end up in court, so having an experienced family law attorney is advisable.  

What Are the Legal Consequences for Neglecting a Child in California?

It varies depending on the severity of the neglect, but California law allows for someone convicted of child neglect to spend up to one year and one day in a state prison or a county jail and/or a maximum fine of $2,000. This may be charged as a felony crime, which is more serious than a misdemeanor. However, it’s possible that the person accused may receive a reduced charge or probation instead of jail time. In those cases, the neglectful parent are often ordered to attend counseling and avoid drugs. There is also the possibility of the neglectful parent losing custody or visitation, at least unsupervised.

Repeated convictions on child neglect often have the same level of punishment, except that it’s more likely to be a felony charge. Once a felony is on someone’s record, that person can no longer buy, use, or own a firearm. It can also be more difficult to pass a background check for a job or an apartment rental contract.

What Should I Do if I Suspect My Ex of Neglecting My Children?

Call us at 951-482-7517 as soon as possible to request an initial consultation. You’ll want to act on this as quickly as you can. Our experienced, knowledgeable attorneys can advise you on the steps you’ll need to take to document the neglect and how to go forward with taking action, including potentially contacting the police, the local county department of children and family services, or the California Department of Social Services. The first and highest priority is the safety of your child. Examining what options you have to protect them going forward is the next step, and we have advice and an understanding of what lies in the future. This could be an intensely stressful and frightening time, and we’re here to help you protect your child going forward.