What Is Child Abandonment in Divorce?

Parents have legal parental rights when it comes to their children. With those rights come important responsibilities. All parents have a legal duty to support and care for their children, providing necessary shelter, food, clothing, and medical care. 

When a parent doesn’t uphold these duties, they can lose their parental rights and even risk criminal charges. 

U.S. child abandonment laws

Abandonment has different legal meanings depending on the context of the situation. 

In a criminal context, child abandonment is usually considered under a state’s child abuse and neglect laws. If an adult leaves a child alone for a period of time without regard for their health or safety, it may be considered abandonment or be prosecuted under different laws, such as child endangerment. This can result in criminal consequences and even jail time. 

In a family law context, when one spouse deserts a family with minor children with no intention of returning, it can also be considered abandonment. Depending on the state, abandonment can be grounds for divorce and may affect many aspects of the divorce settlement. The abandoning spouse may lose their parental or custodial rights and may also face criminal charges. 

In either case, criminal abandonment charges and other legal consequences vary depending on state laws. 

What is child abandonment?

Child abandonment is a broad term used to describe a variety of different behaviors, including the following:

  • Leaving a child on a doorstep, dumpster, or by the side of the road
  • Being unwilling to provide care, child support, or supervision for a child
  • Being absent from a child’s care long enough to create a risk of harm to the child
  • Leaving a child with another person with no communication or provision for support for a specific period of time
  • Child endangerment
  • Failing to respond to child protective proceedings
  • Making the minimal effort to communicate or support a minor child
  • Failing to maintain visitation with a child according to a parenting plan

Worksheet: Create Your Co-Parenting Plan

Physical child abandonment

When a child is left for a significant period of time without supervision and provisions for their basic needs such as food, shelter, clothing, or medical care, it can be considered physical child abandonment. 

Although physical abandonment can include actions such as leaving a child alone, exposed, and at risk of harm (like the baby who is left on a doorstep), there are other actions that qualify as physical abandonment as well. For example, a parent or caretaker may leave the child with inadequate care for long periods of time, or they may refuse or fail to participate in the supervision, care, and financial support of the child. 

Emotional child abandonment

While often subjective, actions that cause a child to feel unwanted and insecure can be considered emotional abandonment. When a parent or legal caretaker fails to provide for a child’s emotional needs for love, affection, or interaction with others over long periods of time, it can be considered emotional child abandonment under child safety and welfare laws. These laws vary from state to state. 

Signs of child abandonment

Signs of child abandonment are similar to those of neglect. A child who has been physically or emotionally abandoned may display any of the following:

  • Frequent absences from school
  • Poor hygiene
  • Malnourishment
  • Wearing clothing that is inappropriate for the occasion or weather
  • Lacking medical or dental care
  • Lacking supervision or being allowed to play in unsafe environments
  • Theft of things like food or money
  • Developmental regression or delays
  • Behavioral changes
  • Acting overly withdrawn or anxious
  • Speech disorders
  • Hyper-alert behavior
  • Fear of or a lack of attachment to adults
  • Frequent headaches or stomach aches that have no medical cause
  • Academic failure

Baby Moses laws

Beginning in 1999 in Texas, infant safe haven laws – or Baby Moses laws – were enacted throughout the country. These allow a mother in crisis to safely relinquish her infant in locations where the baby will be protected and provided medical care. In most cases, Baby Moses laws allow the mother or an agent of the mother to remain anonymous and shielded from criminal prosecution. 

Child Protective Services (CPS)

Because child abandonment is often closely associated with child abuse and neglect, it is covered under state laws that provide for mandatory reporting. 

Mandatory reporting refers to the legal responsibility of specific individuals or agencies to make a report to local Child Protective Services if they suspect abuse, neglect, or abandonment. 

Mandated reporting laws vary from state to state. Depending on the state, mandatory reporters and agencies may include the following:

  • Daycare workers
  • Teachers and teachers’ aides
  • Daycare establishments
  • Schools
  • Babysitters
  • Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals
  • Hospitals
  • Medical clinics
  • Psychologists and other therapists
  • Social workers
  • Clergy
  • Child advocacy organizations
  • Domestic abuse organizations
  • Shelters

After a report is made, Child Protective Services or an associated agency will investigate the report and decide whether additional intervention is needed. 

How can abandonment affect a divorce settlement?

In a family law context, when one spouse walks away from their financial responsibilities toward their family with no intention of returning, it creates serious financial hardship and can be considered abandonment. 

In fault-based divorce states, abandonment is grounds for divorce. Furthermore, if one parent has abandoned the family for a significant period of time without justification or communication, it will likely affect how the court sees their willingness to be responsible for their child’s welfare and their decision about custody. (Note: In the no-fault divorce process, even though abandonment is not grounds for divorce, one spouse’s child or marital abandonment could affect the divorce settlement.)

Depending on state laws, marital property division and spousal support may also be affected by abandonment. In many states, the abandoned spouse has the upper hand in a divorce settlement. In some cases, the abandoning spouse may also be charged with criminal non-support.

Using abandonment in divorce

In fault-based states, abandonment can be used as grounds for divorce if it can be proven. But courts can also consider abandonment in matters of child custody, division of property, and spousal support, depending on the divorce case.

A spouse who has walked out on a family with minor children weakens their case in a divorce settlement. But abandonment isn’t the same as one spouse moving out of the home or one spouse fleeing from domestic violence. Abandonment must be intentional, and that can be difficult and expensive to prove. 

If you are considering a divorce and want to understand how abandonment may affect your legal rights and decisions, it’s important to get professional legal advice. At Hello Divorce, we have services and resources available to help you make the most educated decision possible. Need help? Contact us for a free 15-minute call

Glossary of terms

Child Protective Services: State government agencies that oversee matters of child neglect and abuse

Endangerment: When a parent, guardian, or adult caregiver allows a child to remain in or be placed in a dangerous, inappropriate, or unhealthy situation

Legal custody: The parental right to make legal decisions for a child concerning educational, medical, or religious care

Mandatory reporter: An individual who knows of or suspects that a child has been abused, neglected, or abandoned by a parent or caretaker and is legally responsible for reporting the behavior to Child Protection Services

Parental rights: Any rights and responsibilities regarding a parent to a minor child established by the laws of a state