Child abuse is a unique crime in Arizona. Unlike many other crimes that lay out what the penalty is for a violation, the severity of a child abuse charge ranges from a Class 2 felony to a Class 6 felony: one step less than murder to one step more than shoplifting. The charging depends on two factors. The first is the severity of the injury. The second is your mental state at the time the alleged act was committed.
Child abuse involving serious physical injury to the child can result in a Class 2 to Class 4 felony charge. Where the injury is less than that, child abuse charges range from Class 4 to Class 6 felonies.
The three states of mind considered by the police and prosecution are whether the act was done intentionally or knowingly, recklessly, or negligently.
Because there is such a wide range of charges, it is important to discuss your case early with a criminal defense attorney.
If a child dies, the prosecution often will add a first-degree murder charge (felony murder). The case will ask whether child abuse was the cause of death for the child. This is different than how first-degree murder is typically understood by most people.
In addition to the child abuse statute, the police often will investigate less severe allegations involving children. Normally, these cases are misdemeanors. As a result, they are not tried in superior court.
Contributing to the Delinquency or Dependency of a Minor
Neglect requires the state to prove that a person with custody of a child under sixteen knowingly caused or permitted the child to be endangered or the child's health or moral welfare to be placed in danger by neglect, abuse, or immoral associations.
During my time as a detective, this charge was not charged as often as contributing because it was more narrowly defined.
Contributing cases require the state to prove any person by any act caused, encouraged, or contributed to the delinquency or dependency of a minor.
This crime allows police and prosecutors far more latitude than a neglect charge. Both are Class 1 misdemeanors for which the punishment can be up to 6 months in jail, 3 years probation, and $2,500 in fines.
In my nearly seven years as a detective investigating child abuse allegations, I often found myself assigned child abuse investigations that had a family court custody battle working behind the scenes. This happened so often that I began checking the family court docket for an ongoing case. Unfortunately, there are many parents who make false allegations of abuse or neglect hoping to win in family court.
The police likely will conduct a full investigation of the allegations, even if they know they are likely false. It is important to consult with a criminal defense attorney prior to speaking with the police to avoid saying something that could result in criminal liability for yourself. This will ensure you are protected in both the criminal matter and the family court matter.
On the other side of the coin, many people falsely accused of abusing their children want the person who made the report charged with a crime. This is a difficult allegation for the police to sustain. Beyond that, the threshold for making a report is extremely low (reasonable cause to believe). An attorney working for you early on can help organize documents and evidence to increase the likelihood of this happening.