1. Whether the Grand Jury had sufficient evidence that the defendant was "legally charged" with the care of three year-old Shanaya Jones when it indicted her for endangering the welfare of a child.
2. Whether to be criminally liable the defendant must have stood in loco parentis or have contracted to care for the child when the crime occurred.
1. Yes. There was sufficient evidence that the defendant was "legally charged" with Shanaya's care since she fit the "legal responsibility" standard in her role as caretaker to Shanaya.
2. No. A person can have less than a full-time in loco parentis role and still act as the functional equivalent of a parent.
The defendant was the stepmother of three year-old Shanaya Jones. On August 6, 1996 Shanaya came for an extended visit with the defendant and her husband, Shanaya's father. The defendant described herself as Shanaya's "mother," "stepmother" and "primary caretaker" when the child was visiting. From August 14th to the 16th, the child's father repeatedly physically abused Shanaya, leading to her death on August 16th. The defendant observed the beatings and also knew that Shanaya had not been eating. She did not attempt to get medical help until the evening of the 16th. Shanaya was pronounced dead when she arrived at the hospital that night. An autopsy determined that Shanaya died from physical abuse that occurred in the defendant's apartment.
The defendant was charged with Endangering the Welfare of a Child. She moved to dismiss the charge. The Supreme Court granted the motion citing that there was insufficient evidence that the defendant was "legally charged" with the care or custody of Shanaya. The Appellate Division reversed the dismissal for two reasons. First, the court decided that the defendant was "legally responsible" for the child's care under section 1012(g) of the Family Court Act and was therefore also "legally charged" with Shanaya's care under Penal Law § 260.10 (2). Second, the court decided the defendant stood in loco parentis when the crime occurred, and so was criminally liable. The Court of Appeals affirmed the reversal on the first ground only.
In order for the defendant to be charged with this crime, she must have been "legally charged" with Shanaya's care. In order to be "legally charged," the defendant must have had a responsibility under the law. Penal Law Art. 260 does not specify circumstances under which this responsibility arises, but the Court does find references to the Family Court Act. Under the Family Court Act, a person is described as "legally responsible," a similar term to "legally charged," if she is the child's "custodian, guardian [or] any other person responsible for the child's care at the relevant time." The Family Court Act goes on to say that a custodian may include others in the household whose conduct causes or contributes to the abuse or neglect of the child, and may include "paramours." A person who is "legally responsible" is obligated to prevent a child in her care from abuse, and the Court found these standards to be the same as being "legally charged" with the child's care. The Court found a prima facie case that the defendant was legally charged for Shanaya's care since she, by her own admission, had assumed a primary caretaking role to Shanaya. Any arguments about the extent of the defendant's involvement were found not to be grounds for dismissal but to be issues for trial.
The defendant also unsuccessfully argued for a dismissal, stating she was not standing in loco parentis to Shanaya. The Court stated that a person could still be the functional equivalent of a parent without having the full-time status of in loco parentis.