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Is it illegal to leave a child alone at home or in a car?

By Benson Varghese

Last Updated: May 4th, 2020
Published on: March 22nd, 2016
illegal to leave a child alone

Many parents face child care issues and, sometimes, they believe they have no other option but to leave their child alone at home while they go to work or run a quick errand. Similarly, it’s not uncommon for parents to leave their children in the car while they run into a store or restaurant.

But is it illegal to leave a child alone at home or in a car? The short answer: it depends.

Depending on the circumstances and the age of a child, leaving a child alone at home or in a vehicle can lead to an arrest and serious consequences. In Texas, charges that could stem from leaving a child alone or in harms way include abandoning a child, endangering a child, or leaving a child in a vehicle. Abandoning and endangering are two separate felony offenses that apply to children under the age of 15. Leaving a child in a vehicle applies to children under the age of 7. ¬†Here’s a breakdown of all three offenses.

Abandoning a Child

Texas law doesn’t specify what age is old enough for a child to stay home alone. However, if you decide to leave a child under 15 at home alone and something bad happens – such as a fire, injury or crime – you could find yourself facing criminal abandonment charges.

Texas law describes child abandonment as leaving a child without providing reasonable and necessary care for the child Рcircumstances under which no reasonable, similarly situated adult would have left a child of that age and ability.

Under Texas Penal Code 22.041(b), a person commits an offense if, having custody, care, or control of a child younger than 15 years, he intentionally abandons the child in any place under circumstances that expose the child to an unreasonable risk of harm.

There are different degrees to this offense, depending on the facts and circumstances of the case:

  • Abandoning a Child – State Jail Felony

If the individual abandoned the child but intended to return, it is a state jail felony punishable by six months to 2 years in a state jail facility and a potential fine up to $10,000.

  • Abandoning a Child – Third Degree Felony

If the individual abandoned the child and did not intend to return, it is a third-degree felony punishable by imprisonment of 2 to 10 years and a potential fine of up to $10,000.

  • Abandoning a Child – Second Degree Felony

If the individual abandons the child under circumstances that a reasonable person would believe would place the child in imminent danger of death, bodily injury, or physical or mental impairment, it is a second degree felony punishable by 2 to 20 years imprisonment and a potential fine of up to $10,000.

Endangering a Child

Under Texas Penal Code 22.041(c), a person commits child endangerment if he or she intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence, by act or omission, engages in conduct that places a child younger than 15 years in imminent danger of death, bodily injury, or physical or mental impairment. Child endangerment is generally punished as a state jail felony, punishable by six months to 2 years in a state jail facility.

For example, leaving methamphetamine in a child’s presence or leaving a handgun within a child’s reach could constitute child endangerment. It’s also not uncommon to hear about people being charged with child endangerment after leaving children locked in hot cars in the summer.

Notice for endangering a child, there is no requirement for the child to have been under the care, custody, or control of the actor. Additionally, the child must be placed in imminent danger.

What does Texas law say about leaving a child in a vehicle?

Under Texas Penal Code 22.10, it is illegal to leave a child alone in a motor vehicle for more than five minutes, if the child is younger than 7 and is not accompanied by someone 14 or older.

This offense is a Class C misdemeanor, which carries a punishment range of up to $500.

What should you do if police suspect you endangered a child?

If police suspect you of abandoning or endangering a child, you should contact an attorney before talking to a detective or an officer. This is the single most important thing to remember if you are accused of a crime. Most people don’t realize that police are allowed to lie to you and are trained to elicit the answers they want from a suspect.

It’s also likely that Child Protective Services will become involved in the investigation. Again, it’s important to consult an attorney before talking to CPS. Anything you say to CPS will be given to law enforcement and can potentially be used against you and could also jeopardize custody of your children.

Contact us

As you can see, it can be illegal to leave a child alone and in a car in certain circumstances. If you or a loved one is facing child abandonment or neglect or leaving a child in a vehicle, call us today at (817) 203-2220 for a complimentary strategy session. Our team of former prosecutors and Board Certified Criminal Lawyers are here to help. We have decades of experience and exceptional results handling cases involving crimes against children. During this call we will:

  • Discuss the facts of your case;
  • Discuss the legal issues involved, including the direct and collateral consequences of the allegation; and
  • Discuss the defenses that apply to your plan and in general terms discuss our approach to your case.

You can also contact us online.