Child Abandonment

In law, the term “abandonment” may be used in a variety of legal issues, from contract law to real estate law, referring to the giving up or renunciation of an interest, privilege, possession, or right, with the intent of never reclaiming it. As the term applies to matters of Family Law, an individual may abandon a marriage, spouse, child, or property. While abandonment of a marriage or marital property is a civil matter to be dealt with in family court, abandonment of a child may also be a criminal offense for which the individual may face criminal charges. To explore this concept, consider the following child abandonment definition.

Definition of Abandonment


  1. The giving up or withdrawal of support from something or someone
  2. The act of leaving or deserting a person or property


1325-1375        Middle French abandoner

Types of Child Abandonment

Child abandonment occurs when a child’s parent or guardian willfully withholds emotional, physical, and financial support, with no regard for the child’s safety and welfare. This may include physical abandonment, such as leaving a child somewhere with no intent to return for him, or it may include failure to provide physical supervision, emotional support, and other necessities of life for a child living in the home. So-called “latchkey kids” may, in extreme cases, be considered abandoned by their working or otherwise absent parents.

Under the law, many parental behaviors lead to charges of child abandonment, including:

  • Leaving an infant on a doorstep, in a trash can, or on the side of the road
  • Being absent from the home for a period of time long enough to create substantial risk of harm to a child left in the home
  • Leaving a child with another person without providing for the child’s support, and with no meaningful communication with the child or caregiver for a period specified by statute, usually three months
  • Failing to maintain regular visitation with a child for a period of at least six months
  • Making only token efforts to support and communicate with a child
  • Refusing, or being unwilling, to provide supervision, care, and support for a child
  • Failing to participate in a parenting plan or program designed to reunite the parent with the child
  • Failing to respond to official notice of child protective or child custody proceedings

Child Abandonment Laws

Laws regarding child safety and welfare, abandonment, and abuse vary from state to state, though in most states child abuse and child abandonment laws go hand-in-hand. In many states, child abandonment is considered a felony, even if the child has not been physically harmed by the abandonment. Other states classify child abandonment as a misdemeanor, unless specifics of the crime suggest it should be raised to the level of a felony.

Criminal child abandonment is often defined as physically leaving a child somewhere, though it may also include failing to provide for the child’s basic needs, such as shelter, food, clothing, and medical care. As with child abuse, child physical abandonment is subject to mandatory reporting by professionals defined by state law. Such mandated reporters include medical personnel, counselors or psychiatric care providers, teachers, and other professionals in close contact with children

Emotional Abandonment

Although the child abandonment laws describe certain acts that constitutional non-physical abandonment of children, the truth is, emotional abandonment is subjective. Any act or failure to act that leaves a child feeling unwanted, discarded, or insecure may be considered emotional abandonment under the laws of child safety and welfare.

Experts in child psychology have found that, in a child’s eyes, abandonment is more about the parent’s absence and failure to communicate or take an active role in his life, than any financial considerations. Many children feel it is their fault, and experience feelings of low self worth and shame. Because emotional abandonment by a parent has the potential to cause a lifetime of issues for the child, it is taken very seriously by the courts.

Termination of Parental Rights

Parents have a constitutionally protected right to raise, protect, and educate their children. Such rights generally include physical custody of the child, the right to prevent adoption of a child, the right to educate and discipline the child, and the right to control and manage the minor child’s income and property. When parents fail to provide for the child’s welfare and safety, however, their rights to parent the child may be terminated by the court.

While laws vary from state to state, each recognizes specific circumstances that create an unsafe environment for a child. The most common reasons for termination of parental rights include:

  • Abandonment of the child
  • Severe or persistent abuse or neglect
  • Abuse or neglect of other children in the home
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Long term mental illness of a parent
  • Long term drug or alcohol abuse by a parent
  • Failure to maintain contact with, or support of, a child
  • Having rights to another child terminated involuntarily

One parent’s rights may be terminated without affecting the rights of the other parent. In the event parental rights are taken from both parents, legal custody of the child lies with the State, which then bears the responsibility for finding a suitable placement of the child.

Requirements for Termination of Parental Rights

The parent-child relationship is seen, in the eyes of the law, to be a fundamental right afforded to all parents. Because of this, the process of terminating parental rights is protracted and difficult, and the court will only grant a termination in rare cases. The burden of proof for involuntary termination of parental rights is very high, requiring clear and convincing evidence that at least one of the following applies:

  • Abandonment. A parent intentionally forsakes his duties to the child, failing to accept responsibility for the child’s financial, emotional, and physical support.
  • Failure to provide parental support. A parent repeatedly or continually neglects basic parental duties such as the provision of food, shelter, clothing, and education, or caring for the child’s physical and emotional needs.
  • Failure to provide financial support. A parent that has been ordered to pay financial support for a child continually fails to do so, despite being financially able to do so.
  • Foster care placement. A parent fails to correct conditions that resulted in a child being placed in foster care.

Child Abandonment Statistics

Each year in the United States, more than 3 million reports of child abandonment, child neglect, and child abuse are reported, these statistics touching the lives of more than 6 million children. This makes the United States one of the worst among industrialized nations for child abandonment and abuse.

Studies have shown that adults who report having 6 or more harmful or detrimental experiences in their childhood have a life expectancy shortened by 20 years. Child abuse, neglect, and abandonment are tied to increased incidence of such life-altering diseases as ischemic heart disease, liver disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”).

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Necessities of Life – The bare essentials needed for survival, or to maintain a minimum standard of living.
  • Parenting Plan – A detailed proposal for custody and care of a child, including scheduled time the child will spend with each parent.
  • Child Custody Proceedings – Legal proceedings for the purpose of determining custody of a child, as well as the rights and responsibilities of the parents to the child.
  • Mandated Reporter – An individual required by law to report suspected child abuse or abandonment; usually professionals that have regular contact with children.