Child neglect laws vary from state to state in their naming (child abuse, child neglect, child endangerment, etc.), definitions, and penalties (misdemeanor or felony, jail or probation). But parents, guardians, and other adult caregivers with responsibility for supervising children have an obligation to protect those children from unreasonably dangerous conditions.
Situations that may constitute child neglect include (1) failing to ensure the child receives necessary medical care; (2) failing to provide the child with food, clothing, and shelter; (3) leaving a child unattended in a motor vehicle; (3) serving alcohol to an underage driver; (4) driving while intoxicated with a child in the motor vehicle; (5) leaving a young child unsupervised in an unsafe place or situation; (6) unreasonable punishment resulting in bodily injury (severe spanking, burning, extended isolation, etc.); (7) hiring a babysitter, nanny, or other adult supervisor with a known history of sexual or other abuse of children; (8) leaving firearms within the reach of children; (9) exposing a child to drug transactions or manufacturing; (10) exposing a child to pornography; (11) engaging in sexual activity in view of a child; and (12) placing or allowing a child to remain in a situation that may endanger the child’s life, physical health, mental health, emotional health, morals, or development.
Child neglect laws are usually included in a state’s penal or criminal code (statutes)—which provide for the related criminal charges—and in a state’s family code (statutes) that address the civil (non-criminal) implications of child neglect—often in the context of divorce and child custody matters.
Except in limited circumstances, federal laws generally do not apply to child neglect matters that take place within a single state. Such criminal matters that take place within a single state are generally handled by state or local authorities and prosecuted under state laws. But if the neglect of a child involves conduct or materials in multiple states, or occurs on federal lands (military bases, American Indian territories) the offense may be prosecuted under federal law.