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Matt Tully Discusses the Repercussions for a Service Member who Leaves a Young Child Unattended with the Navy Times

Navy Times

Ask the Lawyer: Leaving child alone may be endangerment

By Mathew B. Tully
Sep. 19, 2014


Q. How much trouble can a service member get into for leaving a young child unattended?

A. Quite a bit; that could lead to a charge of child endangerment, a violation of Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

For service members to commit this offense, they must be responsible for the care of a child under 16. Their actions must endanger “the child’s mental or physical health, safety, or welfare through design or culpable negligence,” and such conduct must be prejudicial to good order and discipline or service-discrediting. Members commit this offense by design when they purposefully, intentionally endanger or plan to endanger the child; and by culpable negligence when their conduct represents “a degree of carelessness greater than simple negligence,” according to the Manual for Courts-Martial.

Many factors affect such cases, including the child’s age, the duration of the unsupervised period, the environment in which the child was left, and whether any assistance was nearby. This offense is not triggered when a child is harmed, but when the child is subjected to a reasonable probability of harm, either mental or physical, according to the manual.

In U.S. v. Sonya R. Vaughan (2003), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces held that an airman first class, who had left her infant daughter unattended in a crib for six hours while she went to a club, committed child neglect by culpable negligence. Vaughan’s conduct, the court said, was service-discrediting.

And in a case this year, U.S. v. Troy B. Norman, the U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals found that a Marine Corps sergeant who had left his 10-month-old son unattended in a bathtub for 45 to 60 seconds — resulting in second-degree burns on 35 percent of the child’s body — committed child endangerment by culpable negligence.

This type of charge often arises when children, particularly those in military housing communities, are playing outside unattended and neighbors or passersby alert the police. These issues are likely to be handled through Article 15 “nonjudicial punishment” or “captain’s mast” if they are brief and can be explained by the service member. But more serious offenses with greater harm or risk of harm would still be tried at court-martial.

Troops who leave a young child unsupervised for long periods may find themselves facing the more serious charge of child endangerment by design, as was the case in U.S. v. David G. Spicer (2012), which involved an Army private first class who had, during the duty day and over a month, left his two young children unsupervised. One suffered from malnourishment and diaper rash and the other suffered from malnourishment and became “emotionally injured.” The Army Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the private’s conviction.

In a concurring decision, a judge said he believed the father was guilty of this offense in that he had the “specific intent to continue subjecting his children to conditions that he knew and understood caused them harm.”


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