ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) _ In the case of a child beaten to death, the state's highest court has ruled that a stepparent is responsible for protecting stepchildren even against biological parents.

The Court of Appeals said Lisa Carroll can be charged in the 1996 death of Shanaya Jones because she was aware of abuse by the girl's father and did nothing to stop it.

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 to 3-year-old Shanaya at the time of the girl's death.

But court ruled 6-0 on Tuesday that she was the ``functional equivalent'' of Shanaya's parent during a 10-day period when the child was living with her father, Carl Jones, who was also Carroll's husband.

Elie Ward, executive director of Statewide Youth Advocacy, hailed the ruling as a valuable precedent for fighting child abuse.

``There are many more children in stepparent families today,'' she said. ``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.''

Chief Judge Judith Kaye 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.''

Carroll met that definition when she was in the household where Shanaya was mistreated, 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.

Shanaya died from injuries including bruises, cuts, abrasions and hemorrhages. Several of her ribs were fractured and a lung was punctured. She was also starved and dehydrated.

The child was apparently abused by her father because she would not eat, court papers said. He was released from state prison in April after serving 22 months of a 4-year sentence for criminally negligent homicide.

If tried and convicted of endangering the welfare of a child, Carroll faces up to one year in jail.

Barbara Thompson, a spokeswoman for Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, said prosecutors hadn't seen the ruling and declined comment.

Steven Berko, Carroll's lawyer, said he was disappointed with the decision. It represents an ``undue expansion'' of the law to include stepparents in cases such as Shanaya's death, he said.