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Child Endangerment and Motor Vehicles

The existence of child abuse and neglect extends as far back in history as children themselves. Sadly, the history of the recognition of forms of abuse and neglect, as well as the laws designed to protect children from them, is not nearly as long. Author L. DeMause; in his book The History of Childhood: The Untold History of Child Abuse, stated, “the history of child abuse is a nightmare from which we have only begun to awaken.”1

The United States followed its European counterparts’ views of children well into the Industrial Revolution, disregarding massive poverty, child labor, and neglected youth. Not until the late 19th century did reform begin. Ironically, it started in 1874 with the Society to Prevent Cruelty to Children, founded nine years after the Society to Prevent Cruelty to Animals. In the mid 20th century, child abuse became a recognized medical diagnosis, and later this concept was expanded to include child neglect.

These efforts of over a century have led to our current understanding that child maltreatment includes physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, as well as neglect and endangerment. The risk to a child’s physical, mental, or emotional well-being is endangerment. It is this recognition of child endangerment that implicates minors and motor vehicles most often. Today, child abuse statutes encompass child endangerment in several states. In many other states, such crimes are charged under the “reckless” provisions of traditional criminal charges.

Child safety in motor vehicles is more than a traffic issue. Many cases of minor occupant protection are intertwined with child abuse and neglect. Prosecutors must evaluate each of these tragedies for possible criminal charges; failing to do so disregards the value of many lost lives.

Mary Leary


1 “Fatality Facts 2003: Children,” Insurance Institute for Highway Safety,