Under state laws, it is a criminal offense for parents and legal guardians to fail to meet children’s basic needs, including food, clothing, shelter, medical treatment, and supervision. Such failure constitutes child neglect.
Child abuse laws make it a crime for adults to abuse children in their care. Such adults include parents, legal guardians, other adults in the home, and baby-sitters. Supervising adults may not go beyond reasonable physical punishment. For example, adults who beat children so severely that the children require medical treatment have violated these laws. Child abuse laws cover not only physical abuse and sexual abuse, but also emotional abuse, such as subjecting a child to extreme public humiliation.
A person may be guilty of child abuse that he or she did not personally commit if that person had legal responsibility for the child and failed to protect the child from the abuser.
Parents have a right to control the care and upbringing of their children. This gives parents the power to make various decisions affecting the child, including where to live, what school to attend, what religion to follow, and what medical treatment to obtain.
Normally the state may not interfere in these decisions. Only in life-threatening or extreme situations will the courts step in to over-rule parents. For example, when a child might die without the medical care that the parents refuse to provide, a judge may make the child a ward of the court (or the state) and order that the care be provided. Parents have been prosecuted for withholding medical treatment from seriously ill children. This has occurred even in situations where parents have followed their religious beliefs.
Although children can be hard to control (particularly adolescents), parents have the legal authority to control their children’s behavior and social lives. Parents may discipline or punish their children appropriately. They may not, however, use cruel methods or excessive force; that constitutes child abuse.
WHAT IS A CHILD PROTECTIVE PROCEEDING?
When it appears that a child under 18 years old has been abused or neglected (harmed or not taken care of) or is in danger of being abused or neglected, a child protective agency may file a petition asking the Family Court to assist in protecting the child. In New York City, this agency is the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). ACS is the petitioner, and the parent or caretaker is the respondent. It is the court’s responsibility to decide whether the allegations of abuse or neglect are true and, if so, what action the court should take to protect the child.
Upon the filing of an abuse or neglect case, ACS may request that a child be placed away from the home for his or her protection or it may request that the child remain in the home under certain conditions.
DO THE PARTIES NEED LAWYERS TO REPRESENT THEM?
Although respondents have the right to represent themselves, a respondent should obtain a lawyer. Respondents may hire lawyers to represent them in court or ask the court to assign lawyers at no cost if they cannot afford to hire their own. Each respondent must have a separate lawyer.