A number of crimes can be prosecuted at either the state or federal level, depending on the circumstances of the alleged offense and the discretion of federal prosecutors. The level at which you are charged is very important, since federal prosecution generally carries much more severe penalties, and crimes tend to be defined more stringently.
However, child abuse is a bit unique in this regard.
The federal government has created a definition of child abuse and guidelines for states to follow when child abuse cases are prosecuted in state courts. In other words, if you are accused of child abuse in our state, you will most likely be charged at the state level. However, you’re going to find yourself in front of a Colorado judge who will take federal guidelines and recommendations into account when prosecuting your case, which essentially makes it a lot more like being prosecuted at the federal level.
It’s a strange system that means you need to be familiar with the federal guidelines and definitions of child abuse even though you will most likely be going to state court. In this post, we dive into the nuts and bolts of that system.
The Federal Definition of Child Abuse
As mentioned above, federal legislation provides guidelines to states regarding the prosecution of child abuse cases. This comes in the form of a set of acts or behaviors that define child abuse and neglect. The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act defines child abuse as:
- “Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation”; or
- “Any act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”
In other words, the federal definition of child abuse is limited specifically to parents and caretakers of the child.
Acts that Constitute Child Abuse
Any action or failure to act that endangers or injures a child, whether physically or emotionally, could potentially be considered child abuse.
Specific acts that are considered child abuse include (but are not limited to):
- Causing an injury to a child’s physical health, life, or emotional well-being
- Engaging in a continued pattern of behavior that results in malnourishment, lack of proper medical care, cruel punishment, mistreatment, or an accumulation of injuries that result in death or serious bodily injury to a child
- Being arrested for a DUI or DWAI with a child in the car
- Performing female circumcision or genital mutilation, or allowing these acts to be performed on your child
- Allowing a child to be anywhere that drugs are illegally manufactured or distributed
Sentencing and Penalties for Child Abuse in Colorado
The circumstances of the alleged offense will determine the specific criminal charge and penalties for Colorado child abuse. Variables include:
- The victim’s age
- Whether the abuser acted knowingly, recklessly, or negligently
- Whether the abuse resulted in death or serious bodily injury to the child
Here are the possible Colorado child abuse crimes and penalties, from most to least serious.
First-degree murder. Child abuse is prosecuted in first-degree murder if the child was under the age of 12, the defendant was in a position of trust with respect to the child, and the defendant knowingly caused the child’s death. This is punishable by life imprisonment or the death penalty.
Death of a child. If the defendant acted knowingly or recklessly in such a way as to result in the child’s death, this is charged as a Class 2 felony, which is punishable by 8-24 years of imprisonment and a fine of $5,000-$1,000,000.
If the defendant acted negligently in a way that results in the child’s death, this is charged as a Class 3 felony, which is punishable by 4-16 years of imprisonment and a fine of $3,000-$750,000.
Serious bodily injury. If the defendant acts knowingly or recklessly and this results in serious bodily injury to the child, this is prosecuted as a Class 3 felony, which is punishable by 4-16 years in prison and a fine of $3,000-$750,000.
If the defendant acts negligently and this results in serious bodily injury to the child, this is prosecuted as a Class 4 felony, which is punishable by 2-8 years in prison and a fine of $2,000-$500,000.
Minor or no injury with aggravating factors. Acts of child abuse that result in a minor injury or no injury are generally prosecuted as misdemeanors, which we cover below.
However, this can become a felony-level charge if one or more of the following aggravating factors are present:
- The defendant has a prior child abuse conviction in any state
- Malnourishment of the child
- Failing to provide the child with adequate medical care
- A continued pattern of cruel punishment or isolation of the child
- Making repeated threats of harm to the child
- Committing repeated domestic violence offenses in the presence of the child
- Extreme deprivation of hygienic or sanitary living conditions
This level of child abuse is prosecuted as a Class 5 felony, which is punishable by 1-5 years in prison and a fine of $1,000-$100,000.
Minor or no injury. Other than the circumstances above, child abuse that results in minor or no injury is charged as a misdemeanor, which is punishable by 3-18 months in jail and/or a $250-$1,000 fine.
No matter what charge you face, you can see that criminal abuse is taken quite seriously when children are involved. This is why it’s so important to know the federal guidelines and state-level consequences for Colorado child abuse, and to fight any child abuse charges against you.
About the Author:
Kimberly Diego is a criminal defense attorney in Denver practicing at The Law Office of Kimberly Diego. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and her law degree at the University of Colorado. She was named one of Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars of 2012” and “Top 100 Trial Lawyers in Colorado” for 2012 and 2013 by The National Trial Lawyers. Both honors are limited to a small percentage of practicing attorneys in each state. She has also been recognized for her work in domestic violence cases.