In a case that expands the responsibility of adults to protect children from physical abuse, New York State's highest court has said a stepparent should intervene - even if the abuser is the child's biological parent.
In making its decision, the court allows prosecutors to charge a stepmother in connection with the death her stepdaughter, because she was aware the child was being beaten by her natural father and did nothing to stop it. The three-year-old, Shanaya Jones, died from a beating in 1996.
The stepmother, Lisa Carroll, had argued that she could not be charged with endangering the welfare of a child because she was not the biological parent, guardian, or paid caregiver of Shanaya.
But court ruled 6-to-0 on Tuesday that Ms. Carroll was the "functional equivalent" of Shanaya's parent during a 10-day period when the child was living with her father, ex-convict Carl Jones, who was Carroll's husband.
"This ruling sends a message that you are responsible, if you are a stepparent in a family, to ensure the safety of the child in that household," said Elie Ward, executive director of Statewide Youth Advocacy.
She hailed the ruling as a valuable precedent for fighting child abuse. "There are many more children in stepparent families today," she said.
Judith Kaye, chief judge of the state's Court of Appeals, said state law defines a "person legally responsible" for the welfare of a child to include the child's custodian, guardian, or "any other person responsible for the child's care at the relevant time."
Caroll met that definition when she was in the household where Shanaya was mistreated, Judge Kaye wrote.
"It would be incongruous for biological parents and guardians, but not a stepmother who assumes the primary care-taking role during the child's visits, to be liable for endangering the welfare of a child," Kaye said.
If tried and convicted of endangering the welfare of a child, Carroll faces up to one year in jail.
Steven Berko, Carroll's lawyer, said the decision represents an "undue expansion" of the law to include stepparents in cases such as Shanaya's death.