For those charged with reckless endangerment of a child in Massachusetts, it often involves defendants who have not personally subjected the child to danger, but have failed to protect a child from danger. The recent case of Commonwealth v. Figueroa was recently decided by the Massachusetts Appeals Court and answered some questions of when a defendant can be convicted of reckless endangerment and when they owe a duty to protect the child.
Commonwealth v. Figueroa involved child abuse of a six month old victim. The mother of the child lived with her mother, the defendant and the defendant’s boyfriend.
On February 29, 2008, the defendant’s boyfriend was shaking the baby and then droped the child on the floor causing a head injury. The child’s mother saw this and grabbed the baby and explained what happened to the defendant and asked for a ride to the hospital. Without looking at the infant, the defendant said he would be alright and threatened to call Social services if the child’s mother tried to bring him to the hospital.
Several days after the incident, the infant was diagnosed with a fractured skull. The defendant again threatened the child’s mother if she said anything about the baby being dropped. DSS arrived at the home and finally were told what had happened to the child. At trial, it was proven that it was in fact trauma that caused the fractured skull.
This appeal focused on the reckless endangerment charges of the defendant. To be convicted of reckless endangerment under G.L. c. section 13L, it has to involve a child under 18, have a substantial risk of bodily injury and the defendant wantonly or recklessly engaged in conduct that created this substantial risk, or failed to take reasonable steps to alleviate the risk when there is a duty to act.
The court ruled that the defendant, who was a grandmother to the 6 month acted recklessly because she knew or should have known of a substantial risk of harm to the baby when she was told the baby had been dropped. The defendant did not need to know the baby was actually injured, but just that there was a substantial risk of injury. Knowing he had been dropped, the defendant should have known there was a high risk of injury. A person of common intelligence would know a blow to the head leads to a substantial risk of danger. Defendant should have taken reasonable steps to care for the child but instead threatened Mary to ensure the child would not be taken to the hospital. Furthermore the court ruled there was a duty for defendant to protect because the defendant was responsible for Mary and those responsibilities include helping Mary take her son to the hospital when needed.
The court limits reckless endangerment of a child to those who cause the danger to the child or those with a duty to take reasonable steps to protect the child from the danger. Commonwealth v. Figueroa shows that this duty will arise only when a person is responsible for the wellbeing of a child. Absent this relationship, there is no duty to protect a child from dangers. When there is this duty however, one must take reasonable steps to ensure the child’s safety. The court does not require a defendant to actually know the child is in danger to take these steps, but requires that a defendant knows or should know there is a substantial risk of danger to the child. This further limits the charge of reckless endangerment of a child to dangers that would be known to a person of common intelligence. A person is not endangering a child when there is an unknown or hidden risk to the child.