California Penal Code 270 PC
(Failure to Provide Care / Child Neglect)

Penal Code 270 PC is California's criminal law on “child neglect.” This crime is also known as “failure to provide care” for a child in California.

A parent violates California Penal Code 270 by:

  1. Failing to provide physical necessities,
  2. For his/her minor child,
  3. Without a lawful excuse.1

The “physical necessities” required under PC 270 are:

  • Clothing;
  • Food;
  • Shelter; and
  • Medical or other “remedial care” (such as help from an official religion).2

Who is a parent under PC 270?

Parent is defined quite broadly for purposes of California Penal Code 270. It includes all adoptive parents and others who hold themselves out as parents. It also includes the husband of any woman who gives birth to a baby while the husband is living with her.3

(It does not include someone who no longer has any rights or obligations in connection with the minor due to a court declaration). 4

Penal Code 270 is closely related to:

But unlike these two crimes, neglect can be committed by a parent who rarely or never has contact with the child.7

Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer Neil Shouse explains:

“The enforcement of California's child neglect law often reflects society's biases against so-called ‘deadbeat dads.' In some cases, the defendant didn't even know he had a baby or didn't know his child wasn't being taken care of. In others he may have wanted to help but was prevented from doing so by the minor's mother or other relatives.”

Penalties for child neglect

Failure to provide care under Penal Code 270 is usually a misdemeanor in California. It can be punished by:

  • Up to one (1) year in county jail; and/or
  • A fine of up to two thousand dollars ($2,000).8

In rare cases, Penal Code 270 may be punished as a felony in California. This can occur if a parent fails to provide care after a court makes a determination that he/she is a parent. 9 This would happen, for instance, if the judge in a paternity suit determined that a man was a minor's father but the father still refused to provide necessities for the child.

As a felony, PC 270 can be punished by:

  • Up to one (1) year in county jail, or
  • One (1) year plus one (1) day in a state prison, and/or
  • A fine of up to two thousand dollars ($2,000).

Probation instead of jail time

Often, the judge in a California child neglect case will sentence the defendant to probation. Such probation can be misdemeanor (summary) probation or felony (formal) probation, as applicable.

If sentenced to probation, the defendant will serve little or no jail time.

But there will be conditions the defendant must comply with. Such conditions will usually include parenting classes and/or counseling.

If the parent fails to comply with any conditions imposed by the judge, the judge can schedule a probation violation hearing. If there is no lawful excuse for the violation, the judge can revoke probation and send the parent to jail.

man in suit sitting on a step looking stressed
Parents who cannot find work may have a legal defense to Penal Code 270, California's “child neglect” law.

Legal defenses to child neglect

Defenses to charges under Penal Code 170 often include taking the position that:

  • The parent was falsely accused of failing to provide necessities for the minor;
  • The defendant is not the minor's legal parent;
  • The defendant did not act “willfully”:
  • Through no fault of the parent's own, the parent could not afford to provide all the necessities his/her child required;
  • The parent reasonably did not know the minor needed medical care; or
  • The parent provided a lawful alternative to medical care such as prayer (though the parent may still be charged with another offense if the child is very ill or dies). 10

To help you better under child neglect under Penal Code 170, our California criminal defense lawyers discuss the following, below:

hungry boy holding an empty plate
Under California Penal Code 270 PC, parents can be sent to jail for failing to provide food for their children.

1. The legal definition of child neglect in California

A parent commits Penal Code 270 child neglect in California when:

  1. He or she willfully,
  2. Fails to provide necessities to his or her child,
  3. Without lawful excuse. 11

1.1. What is a “necessity” for purposes of PC 270?

The “necessities” covered by Penal Code 270 are those that provide for a minor's physical needs, namely:

  • Clothing;
  • Food;
  • Shelter; and
  • Medical or other “remedial” care. 12

What is “remedial” care under PC 270?

“Remedial care” may consist of spiritual treatment through prayer. So parents who don't believe in traditional medicine may use “faith healers” for their children.

But such “prayer-based treatment” must be provided by a practitioner of a recognized church or religious denomination. 13

And if the child is very sick or does not get better the parent can still be prosecuted under:

1.2. Who is a parent for purposes of PC 270?

“Parent” has a broad legal meaning under Penal Code 270. Under PC 270, a defendant is considered a minor's “parent” in each of the following situations:

The defendant is married to and lives with the child's mother.

Under California law, a husband is considered the father of any baby his wife gives birth to if:

  1. The husband is not impotent or sterile, and
  2. The husband lives with his wife; 15

OR

  1. The baby was born as the result of artificial insemination, and
  2. The husband consented to the procedure in writing. 16
What if the husband is not the child's biological father?
 

A husband is considered the father of a baby his wife gives birth to even if his wife was sleeping with other people.17

But a man will NOT be considered if the father if:

  1. He (or in some cases, the mother) brings a paternity proceeding within two (2) years of the baby's birth, and
  2. A court determines the husband is not the baby's father. 18

The defendant is divorced from a parent with whom he has a child.

A defendant is a parent even if he/she does not have any custody rights. In fact, someone may be a parent even if:

  • He has never met the child, or
  • He/she has not seen the minor since the child's birth.19

Note that this does not apply to a baby who has lawfully been given up for adoption or a “safely surrendered” baby in California.20

It also does not apply if the child has been declared abandoned by a court and another person has assumed legal responsibility.21

The defendant never married the child's other parent.

A defendant does need to have been married to, or even in a relationship with, the other parent.22

One-night stands can result in parental obligations under Penal Code 270.

Example: Todd and Sarah dated briefly. Sarah became pregnant. Todd asked Sarah to terminate the pregnancy, but Sarah refused. She never spoke to him again.

Years later, Todd learns from a mutual friend that Sarah had a son. He also learns that Sarah is addicted to methamphetamine and often fails to provide food and clothing for the child.

Todd decides it's better not to get involved. So he does nothing. Todd can be charged with neglect under PC 270 even though he has never met his son.

A person has legally adopted or otherwise assumed legal responsibility for the child.

California has various mechanisms for a person to assume the responsibilities of a parent.

These include adoption and assumption of legal responsibility under California's civil “child abandonment” law.23

Someone who has assumed such responsibilities is legally obligated to provide necessities for the child. Conversely, birth parents (or prior adoptive parents) can be legally relieved of such responsibility by court decree.

Does Penal Code 270 apply to an unborn child?

Yes. Penal Code 270 PC applies to unborn children. The unborn child's legal mother and father are obligated to provide necessities for such child.24

Couple holding pregnant belly
California's “failure to provide care” law, Penal Code 270, also applies to unborn children.]

1.3. The legal definition of “willfully” and “without lawful excuse”

A person does something "willfully" or “willingly” when he/she does it on purpose.25 A “willful” failure to do something contrasts with something done “negligently” or even “recklessly.”

But a parent has a “lawful excuse” for child neglect if, through no fault of his/her own, he or she is unable to earn enough to pay for the minor's necessities.26  

Example: Maria and Tom have four children. Maria can't work due to a medical condition. Tom works in a warehouse but is laid off when the economy goes into a recession.

Tom tries to find another job but can't get one. The family is evicted from their apartment and ends up living in a tent on a friend's property. They rely on food stamps and food banks to eat. But often there is no food for the children's dinner.

A teacher at the children's school notifies the police.27 Maria and Tom are charged with PC 270 child neglect. But they have a lawful excuse—lack of money through no fault of their own. Once they prove this to the prosecutor, she drops the charges.

When is a defendant at “fault” for not having money?

A defendant does NOT have a “lawful excuse” for failing to provide for his/her child if:

  • The defendant unreasonably chose to spend money on other things; or
  • The defendant did not diligently look for work.28

Under Penal Code 270, parents must make children their priority. And they cannot avoid criminal liability simply because support was provided by:

  • The other parent,
  • Another person, or
  • An organization (such as a church or food bank).29

Example: Liz is a single mother with an eight-year-old daughter, Crystal. Liz works part-time as a cocktail waitress. Often before payday Liz does not have enough money to buy food. So Crystal goes without. When winter comes, Liz does not buy Crystal warm clothes. But she buys herself jewelry.

Izzy is Crystal's teacher. He knows about her situation at home and feels sorry for her. He often gives her lunch when she is hungry. He also gives her some of his son's old clothes.

Izzy takes care of Crystal because Liz chooses unreasonably to spend her money on something other than Crystal's care. So even though Crystal has everything she needs, Liz is still guilty of failing to provide care.

man smiling with keys to a car in his hand
Under California PC 270, parents are legally obligated to provide care for their children before spending money on luxuries.

2. Penalties for child neglect

Misdemeanor child neglect

Failure to provide care is usually a misdemeanor under California Penal Code 270. As a misdemeanor, PC 270 can be punished by:

  • Misdemeanor (summary) probation;
  • Up to one (1) year in county jail; and/or
  • A fine of up to two thousand dollars ($2,000).30

Felony child neglect

Under certain circumstances, Penal Code 270 becomes a California “wobbler” offense.31 A “wobbler” is a crime that can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, in the prosecutor's discretion.

PC 270 provides for wobbler penalties if a court previously ruled that the defendant is the child's parent. This most often occurs in a California paternity suit.

Example: Bruno and Nancy date each other briefly. Nancy becomes pregnant and gives birth to a girl she names Lacey. Bruno refuses to acknowledge the child as his and Nancy sues him for child support.

The court rules that Bruno is Lacey's father. But Bruno still refuses to pay support. He is then charged with failure to provide care under Penal Code 270. Because of the prior court ruling, the prosecutor can charge Bruno with felony child neglect under California law.

Felony penalties for child neglect can include:

  • Up to one (1) year in county jail, or
  • One (1) year plus one (1) day in a California state prison, and/or
  • A fine of up to two thousand dollars ($2,000).

Constitutional limitations

Despite the wording of Penal Code 270, most fathers will never be charged with felony failure to provide care. A California court has held that felony penalties violate the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution if the defendant has never before been convicted of neglect. 32

The court's rationale is that harsh sentences would deter men from trying to establish paternity. It would also cause others to pay for child support (perhaps wrongly) rather than risk being judged a father and later charged with felony failure to provide support.

The upshot is that someone is only likely to be charged with PC 270 as a felony if:

  1. He previously lost a paternity suit, AND
  2. He has already been convicted at least once of failure to provide care.
man behind bars
In rare cases, California Penal Code 270 “child neglect” can be punished with felony penalties.

3. Legal defenses to Penal Code 270

Legal defenses to Penal Code 270 charges usually focus on willfulness or lawful excuse. They may also focus on common legal defenses such as violation of California's search and seizure laws.

Below we discuss some of the more common legal defenses to charges of failure to provide necessities to a minor.

False allegations

Unfortunately, parents are not immune to leveling unfounded accusations at an ex.

Perhaps a custodial parent wanted more money after a divorce. Perhaps a former partner was motivated by jealousy or revenge.

If so, an experienced California defense lawyer can often persuade the prosecutor to drop the charges.

Mistake of fact

Sometimes a parent is wrongly accused of neglect based on a “mistake of fact.”

This is especially likely when a so-called “mandated reporter” sees signs of what appears to be neglect.

Under California's "Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act" many professionals are required by law to report suspected abuse.33 These “mandated reporters” include:

  • Doctors and nurses,
  • Teachers and school administrators,
  • Social workers, and
  • Clergy34

A mandated reporter who fails to report abuse is guilty of a misdemeanor. 35Thus such people often report even the slightest suspicion of neglect.

A defendant can often counter these allegations with evidence of care provided to the minor or – in the case of a non-custodial parent -- an attempt to make such care.

doctor examining baby
Medical professionals, teachers, social workers and clergy are legally required to support suspected child abuse to the authorities in California.

The defendant is not the minor's parent

If the defendant is not legally the minor's parent, he/she is not responsible for the minor's care. A defendant might not be a minor's parent if:

  • The child was born while the mother was married to someone else;
  • The minor was lawfully adopted by someone else; or
  • The defendant was not biologically the minor's parent AND
    • The minor was not conceived by artificial insemination, or
    • The minor was conceived by artificial insemination without the defendant's written consent.

The defendant did not act “willfully”

Parents are not responsible for failure to provide their children necessities unless the failure to do so was willful. A failure is “willful” if it is done on purpose.36

Under California law, neglect is not considered willful if the failure to provide necessities was not the defendant's fault. This might happen if:

  • The parent reasonably did not recognize that his/her child needed medical care; or
  • Through no fault of his/her own, the parent could not afford to provide necessities despite his/her honest efforts. 37

The parent was lawfully excused from seeking medical care

Not all parents believe in traditional medical care. Under Penal Code 270, a parent may initially seek alternative care (such as prayer or faith healing) for his/her child.

This, in and of itself, does not constitute unlawful neglect as long as:

  1. The practitioner be recognized by his/her church or religious organization,
  2. The church or religious organization itself is one that is recognized, and
  3. The child is not seriously ill or at risk of dying.38

Note that this does not necessarily relieve the parent of all responsibility under the law.

If the minor becomes seriously ill or his/her life is in dangers, parents are legally obligated to seek medical help regardless of their religious beliefs.39

A parent who does not do so may face felony charges under:

  • Penal Code 273a, California's child endangerment law, or
  • Penal Code 192(b), California's law on “involuntary manslaughter” (if the child dies).
two hands sharing a cloud of energy or spirit
Faith healing” can be a lawful alternative to providing medical care for a minor in California, as long as the child does not become seriously ill.

The parent could not afford to provide necessities for his/her child

Parents who cannot afford to provide all the necessities for their children may have a “lawful excuse” for child neglect.40

The key to the “lawful excuse” defense is that the lack of financial means is caused through no fault of the defendant's own.

A defendant must put the needs of his/her children first. This means that an able-bodied parent must use reasonable efforts to find work.41

Examples of valid reasons for failure to provide care to a minor child:

  • The parent was seriously ill;
  • A working parent only had enough money to provide some of the necessities; or
  • An out-of-work parent could not find work (or enough work) despite good faith efforts.42

Examples of reasons that would not be considered valid:

  • A father spent the money to support his new girlfriend's children;
  • A mother skipped her daughter's doctor appointment because she wanted to buy a new dress for herself; or
  • A mother felt that certain jobs were “beneath her.”

4. Related offenses to Penal Code 270 failure to provide care

Several other California laws are often charged instead of, or in addition to, Penal Code 270. Some of the most common include:

4.1. Child abuse – Penal Code 273d

Penal Code 273d PC is California's main “child abuse” law. Technically it is known as “corporal injury on a child.” It makes it a crime to impose physical injury or cruel punishment on a minor.43

Examples of child abuse:

  • Slapping a teenager for talking back and cutting her face with a ring;
  • Spanking a toddler with a belt hard enough to cause bruises;
  • Forcing a boy to walk on his knees until his skin is raw.

Penal Code 273d is a California “wobbler” offense.

As a misdemeanor, it can be punished by:

  • Up to one (1) year in county jail, and/or
  • A fine of up to $6,000.44

Felony punishment for child abuse carries possible penalties of:

  • 2, 4 or 6 years in jail (plus an additional 4 years if the defendant has a prior felony PC 273d conviction within the preceding 10 years),45 and/or
  • A fine of up to $6,000. 46

4.2. Child endangerment -- Penal Code 273a PC

Penal Code 273a PC is California's “child endangerment” law. Unlike PC 273d child abuse, PC 273a does not require a physical injury or harm.

Rather, it makes it a “wobbler” crime to place a minor in a situation in which his or health might be endangered.47

Examples of child endangerment:

  • A mother leaves her with her heroin-addicted brother while she goes to the casino.
  • A father lets his toddler stand up in his convertible as he drives down Pacific Coast Highway with the top down.
  • A married couple cooks meth in their home while their 10-year old son is present.

Although endangering a minor might seem less serious than abuse, it can be punished in the same way. In fact, Penal Code 273a is often referred to simply as “child abuse.”

child looking at knife on top of table
Child endangerment is often charged along with PC 270 child neglect in California.

4.3 Child abduction (stealing) – Penal Code 278 PC

Penal Code 278, the California crime of "child stealing" is closely related to Penal Code 207, California's kidnapping law. Child stealing occurs when a someone maliciously takes a minor away from his/her legal guardian.48

Child abduction differs from kidnapping in that it focuses on a different victim. The victim of a kidnapping charge is the minor who is taken. The victim of child stealing is the parent of the abducted minor.49 Thus these two charges are often brought together.

Child stealing is a “wobbler” offense. If charged as a misdemeanor, penalties can include:

  • Up to one year in a county jail, and/or
  • A fine of up to $1,000.50

Felony consequences of child abduction can include:

  • Two, three, or four years in jail,
  • A fine of up to $10,000, and/or
  • Reimbursement of the victim's and/or the government's costs in attempting to locate and return the minor.51

4.4 Deprivation of custody -- Penal Code 278.5 PC

Penal Code 278.5 is California's "deprivation of custody" law. It is similar to child stealing under Penal Code 278, except that it applies specifically to:

  • Non-custodial parents who deprive the custodial parent of custody over the minor, or
  • Custodial parents who interfere with a non-custodial parent's visitation rights.

(The "custodial" parent is one with legal custody of a child. A "non-custodial" parent is one who does not have legal custody, but may have visitation rights).

Penal Code 278.5 is a wobbler offense. As a misdemeanor, it can be punished by:

  • Up to one year in a county jail, and/or
  • A fine of up to $1,000.52

Penalties for a felony PC 278.5 conviction can include:

  • 18 months, or two or three years in jail,
  • A fine of up to $10,000, and/or
  • Reimbursement of the victim's and/or the government's costs in attempting to locate and return the child.53

4.5. Domestic violence

California's “domestic violence” laws punish mistreatment of romantic partners as well as children. Domestic violence laws often charged along with child neglect include:

These crimes are often “wobbler” offenses that can be charged as either misdemeanors or felonies.

Charged with child neglect in California? Call us for help…

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If you have been charged with child neglect, endangerment, or abuse, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation.

Call us at 855-LAWFIRM or complete the form on this page to discuss your case confidentially with an experienced California child neglect attorney.

We have local criminal law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.

We also have law offices in Las Vegas and Reno that may be able to help if you have been charged under Nevada's child abuse, neglect, and endangerment laws.

Additional Resources:

Legal references:

  1. California Penal Code 270 PC: “If a parent of a minor child willfully omits, without lawful excuse, to furnish necessary clothing, food, shelter or medical attendance, or other remedial care for his or her child, he or she is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars ($2,000), or by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding one year, or by both such fine and imprisonment. If a court of competent jurisdiction has made a final adjudication in either a civil or a criminal action that a person is the parent of a minor child and the person has notice of such adjudication and he or she then willfully omits, without lawful excuse, to furnish necessary clothing, food, shelter, medical attendance or other remedial care for his or her child, this conduct is punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding one year or in a state prison for a determinate term of one year and one day, or by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars ($2,000), or by both such fine and imprisonment. This statute shall not be construed so as to relieve such parent from the criminal liability defined herein for such omission merely because the other parent of such child is legally entitled to the custody of such child nor because the other parent of such child or any other person or organization voluntarily or involuntarily furnishes such necessary food, clothing, shelter or medical attendance or other remedial care for such child or undertakes to do so.

    Proof of abandonment or desertion of a child by such parent, or the omission by such parent to furnish necessary food, clothing, shelter or medical attendance or other remedial care for his or her child is prima facie evidence that such abandonment or desertion or omission to furnish necessary food, clothing, shelter or medical attendance or other remedial care is willful and without lawful excuse.

    The court, in determining the ability of the parent to support his or her child, shall consider all income, including social insurance benefits and gifts.

    The provisions of this section are applicable whether the parents of such child are or were ever married or divorced, and regardless of any decree made in any divorce action relative to alimony or to the support of the child. A child conceived but not yet born is to be deemed an existing person insofar as this section is concerned.

    The husband of a woman who bears a child as a result of artificial insemination shall be considered the father of that child for the purpose of this section, if he consented in writing to the artificial insemination.

    If a parent provides a minor with treatment by spiritual means through prayer alone in accordance with the tenets and practices of a recognized church or religious denomination, by a duly accredited practitioner thereof, such treatment shall constitute “other remedial care”, as used in this section.”

  2. Same.
  3. Same. See also Family Code 7540 and 7541.
  4. See, e.g., Family Code 7822 FC. This law covers termination of parental rights in cases of child abandonment or adoption.
  5. Penal Code 273d PC.
  6. Penal Code 273a PC.
  7. Penal Code 270 PC.
  8. Same.
  9. Same.
  10. Same. See also Walker v. Superior Court (1988) 253 Cal. Rptr. 1, 47 Cal. 3d 112, 763 P.2d 852.
  11. California Penal Code 270 PC. See also  California Criminal Jury Instructions (CALCRIM) 2981. Failure to Provide Care.
  12. Same.
  13. Same.
  14. Walker v. Superior Court, endnote 7.
  15. California Family Code 7540 FC.
  16. CALCRIM 2981; Family Code 7541 FC.
  17. CALCRIM 2981.
  18. Family Code 7541(a).
  19. See same.
  20. California Health and Safety Code 1255.7 HS. This law makes it legal to surrender an infant to authorities within 72 hours of a child's birth without facing prosecution for child abandonment.
  21. See Family Code 7822 FC, endnote 4.
  22. CALCRIM 2981.
  23. See Family Code 7822, endnote 4.
  24. Same.
  25. Penal Code 7, subsection 1; CALCRIM 2981.
  26. People v. Caseri (1933) 18 P.2d 389.
  27. Teachers are “mandated reporters” who are legally required to report suspected cases of child abuse to the authorities in California. See Penal Code 11164 and subsequent sections, collectively known as California's "Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act."
  28. Penal Code 270 PC; CALCRIM 2981. See also People v. Caseri, endnote 25.
  29. CALCRIM 2981.
  30. Penal Code 270 PC; Penal Code 1203 PC.
  31. See Penal Code 270 PC, endnote 1.
  32. People v. Gregori (1983) 144 Cal.App.3d 353.
  33. California's "Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act," Penal Code 11164 and subsequent sections.
  34. Same.
  35. Penal Code 11166 PC.
  36. Penal Code 7 PC.
  37. People v. Caseri, endnote 25.
  38. Penal Code 270 PC.
  39. Walker v. Superior Court, endnote 10 (“[W]hen a child's health is seriously jeopardized, the right of a parent to rely exclusively on prayer must yield.”).
  40. Penal Code 270; CALCRIM 2981.
  41. People v. Caseri, endnote 25.
  42. Same.
  43. California Penal Code 273d(a).
  44. Same.
  45. Penal Code 273d(b).
  46. Penal Code 273d(a).
  47. Penal Code 273a PC.
  48. Penal Code 278.
  49. People v. Campos (1982) 131 Cal.App.3d 894.
  50. Penal Code 278.
  51. Same. See also Penal Code 278.6 PC.
  52. Penal Code 278.5(a) PC.
  53. Same. See also Penal Code 278.6 PC.

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