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Crimes Against Children Law

Children, who by definition require the guardianship and care of adults, are among the most vulnerable and innocent victims of crimes. Crimes against children include physical and emotional abuse; neglect; and exploitation, such as through child pornography or sex trafficking of minors. Child-related crimes often are perpetrated by parents, relatives, caretakers, and others who are charged with their care and guidance. School officials, physicians, police officers, and other such authority figures are required to report any signs of abuse or exploitation against a child. The following articles cover child abuse, statutory rape, child pornography, sexting, and other crimes against children.

Child Abuse Overview

Child abuse is broadly defined as any type of cruelty inflicted upon a child, including physical or emotional harm, endangerment, abandonment, neglect or sexual abuse. Severe punishments exist for offenders. Child services agencies also investigate reports of maltreatment and can remove children from unsafe or unhealthy environments. This combination of criminal prohibitions and protective services forms the basis of child abuse laws, which vary somewhat from state to state.

One major hurdle to stopping child abuse is the difficulty of uncovering it. That’s why states have also enacted mandatory reporting requirements for certain professions. These laws apply primarily to people who have regular contact with children or who are most likely to discover abuse or neglect — such as teachers, doctors, nurses and social workers.

Child Abuse as a Crime
To be a crime, child abuse generally must have been intentional. Typical defenses include saying that the allegations are false, that the injury was accidental, or that the conduct was within parents’ right to discipline their children as they see fit.

Criminal penalties depend on the specific nature of the conduct and other factors, including the age of the child. Lengthy prison sentences are common for child sexual abuse or exploitation. Other serious violations of child abuse laws may lead to jail time as well.

When the suspected abuser is someone other than the child’s parent or guardian, police departments typically conduct the investigation.

Child Protective Services
All states also have child protective services agencies that look into reports of abuse or neglect. If it appears to government social workers that there’s an imminent danger in the home, the agency may take the child from the parents’ custody for placement in foster care until it becomes clear that the home environment is safe. In extreme cases of child mistreatment, the investigating agency may seek assistance from a court to terminate parental rights. When this happens, the child may be placed for permanent adoption.

Mandatory Reporting Laws
Every state mandates that people in certain professions must report known or suspected child abuse, and there is often a toll-free hotline for this purpose. The confidential reports promote early intervention to protect the child.

Mandatory reporting laws commonly apply to individuals such as teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, clergy members, day care workers and law enforcement personnel. To protect individuals who make good faith reports, state laws often provide that they can’t be sued if they turn out to be in error. In many states, failure to report child abuse is also a criminal misdemeanor punishable by fines, jail time or both.

If you suspect that someone is abusing a child, visit FindLaw’s How to Get Help for Child Abuse section for more information on what to do.

Need Help with Child Abuse Laws? Call a Local Attorney
Child abuse cases are a serious matter and there are definitely acts that clearly constitute abuse. However, there can be gray areas where the law isn’t always that clear. If you’re being criminally investigated for suspected abuse of a child, you should consider a confidential consultation with a criminal defense lawyer near you to get a better idea of how the law applies to your situation.


Child Pornography

Federal and state laws make it a crime to produce, distribute, or even just possess pornographic materials that portray a minor (someone under the age of 18). Increasingly, child pornography laws are being relied on to punish individuals who use the internet to share or obtain pornographic images and videos involving children.

Federal laws addressing child pornography are:

18 U.S.C. § 2251- Sexual exploitation of children
18 U.S.C. § 2251A- Selling or buying of children
18 U.S.C. § 2252- Certain activities relating to material involving the sexual exploitation of minors
18 U.S.C. § 2252A- Certain activities relating to material constituting or containing child pornography
18 U.S.C. § 2260- Production of sexually explicit depictions of a minor for importation into the United States
A violation of federal child pornography laws is a serious crime and the penalties are harsh. First-time offenders found guilty of producing child pornography are sentenced to between 15 and 30 years in prison. Individuals caught with child pornography on their personal computers receive prison time. Offenders may be prosecuted under federal or state law (or both).

State vs. Federal Child Pornography Laws
A federal child pornography crime such as manufacturing, distribution, or possession typically requires the illegal activity to cross state lines, such as on the internet or through the mail. While federal authorities often take the lead, state prosecutors can also pursue child pornography charges.

Mandatory Sex Registration
If you’ve been convicted of a child pornography-related crime, either federal or state, your sentence will likely include mandatory sex offender registration. This means that your photo, address, and other information will appear in a database for monitoring and tracking sex offenders.

It is both a federal and state crime to knowingly fail to register or update a sex offender listing as required by law. Members of the public can gain access to this information via the National Sex Offender Public Website, which includes the registry of all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Child Pornography Laws and the First Amendment
Some people have argued, unsuccessfully, that child pornography should be protected under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. However, courts have consistently found that images of child pornography are not protected as free speech or free expression, primarily because the very existence of such material infers that violations — photographing minors in a pornographic manner — were committed in its production.

The main precedent for this was set in a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision (New York v. Ferber) upholding the right of states to prohibit the distribution or possession of sexually explicit photos involving children. Specifically, it holds that these state laws “…[don’t] violate the First Amendment as applied to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Selfies and Social Media
When explicit images of minors are shared on social media (including “selfies” taken by the subjects themselves), this oversharing may cross the line into child pornography territory. While the criminal nature of such acts is clear when committed by an adult, it’s less certain when it’s committed by a minor. It also depends on particular state laws.

The intent behind child pornography laws is to protect children from exploitation, but many laws don’t make a distinction. For instance, a minor sending an explicit photo of himself to his minor girlfriend could open both individuals up to prosecution. However, this is a still-evolving area of law, in the wake of rapid advances in technology.

What Should I Do if I Discover a Suspected Child Pornography Website?
If you come across a website that you believe is depicting child pornography, the first step is to contact your local law enforcement agency. While many of these crimes involve federal law, local authorities will know where to route the investigation. You can also contact:

Federal Bureau of Investigation
National Center for Missing & Exploited Children CyberTipLine
Offices of the United States Attorneys
Talk to a Criminal Defense Attorney About Your Criminal Charges
Whether prosecuted under federal or state law, violating child pornography laws often leads to heavy prison sentences. If you’ve been accused of child pornography, don’t waste any time before retaining an experienced attorney to protect your legal rights, help you establish a defense, and preserve evidence that may benefit your case. Contact a criminal defense lawyer near you today.

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