Leaving is Not Abandoning: A Recent Child Abuse Decision

A recent decision by the New Mexico Supreme Court examines the term “leaving or abandoning” in the context of child abandonment.

The underlying facts of the case begin with the defendant, Jennifer Stephenson, putting her two-year old son, Isaiah, to bed then locking the door for the night. The next morning Isaiah’s father heard Isaiah crying and discovered Isaiah trapped between a dresser and a crossbar on Isaiah’s bed. Due to this incident, Isaiah developed a serious condition known as compartment syndrome, which required surgery to correct.

A jury convicted Ms. Stephenson of one count of abandonment of a child resulting in great bodily harm, a second-degree felony, The Court of Appeals reversed that conviction, holding that her conduct did not fall within the meaning of “leaving or abandoning” because she did not leave Isaiah with the intent not to return. The New Mexico Supreme Court reached the same resolution of reversal and the case was remanded for an entry of judgement or acquittal.

The crux of this case rested on the Court’s analysis of “leaving or abandoning.” The applicable law defines “abandonment” as a “parent, guardian or custodian of a child intentionally leaving or abandoning the child under circumstances whereby the child may or does suffer neglect.” Neglect is defined as a child being without proper parental care and control necessary for the child’s well-being.

The statute does not define “leaving or abandoning.” To determine whether Ms. Stephenson’s conviction was supported by sufficient evidence, the Court examined the scope and definitions of “leaving” and “abandoning.”

After reviewing the Court of Appeals’ analysis the Court looked at the plain meaning of both “leaving” and “abandoning” in the dictionary – this certainly sheds light on what a juror would have thought of those words.

The Court noted that, “a juror relying on the ordinary meaning of the word “abandon” could reasonably conclude that for a parent to abandon a child, he or she must have left the child with the intent of never returning.”

The Court then held that a parent, guardian, or custodian who “simply departs from the child does not violate the statute unless at the time the parent, guardian, or custodian departs from the child, the circumstances are such that the child’s well-being is at risk of harm.”

Then the Court aptly points out the distinction between the words “leaving” and “abandoning,” each which requires an independent analysis to connect it to criminal culpability.

Finally, the Court distinguished, “the Legislature must clarify its intent with respect to the crime of child abandonment. Nevertheless, we agree with the Court of Appeals that Defendant could not be found guilty of abandoning Isaiah because there is no evidence that Defendant intentionally left Isaiah with the intent not to return.” The Court also ruled that there was no sufficient evidence to support the conclusion that Ms. Stephenson intentionally departed from Isaiah, leaving him under circumstances where Isaiah might have or did suffer neglect.

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