Maybe you’re experiencing an ongoing child-care crunch, or perhaps you just need to run an errand. Either way, parents may find themselves wrestling with the wisdom of leaving kids alone. Legally speaking, it’s a pretty gray area, as summarized in a recent Avvo Stories Brief.
While some locales around the U.S. do have mandated age limits for when children can be left unsupervised, most do not, leaving parents in a quandary: Are the kids old enough, or are we risking a visit from Child Protective Services if we step out for an hour or two? Let’s take a more in-depth look at the issues.
Some parents who land more in the free-range parenting camp might remember that it was only a generation ago when many children routinely walked alone to and from school and came home to an empty house. The 1990 Hollywood film Home Alone even popularized the topic with a comedic slant when an 8-year-old boy is accidentally left while his family goes on vacation.
While the number of latchkey kids has been declining thanks to afterschool programs, census data reveals that more than 4 million children were left unsupervised for more than six hours a week on average in 2011. And with news traveling on the internet at dizzying speed, parents are reading about more and more national cases of caregivers coming up on the wrong side of the law for leaving their children without supervision.
Although there are federal and state guidelines on the topic of unsupervised kids, there’s a lack of hard-and-fast rules. Only three states legally mandate the minimum age at which a child can be left unsupervised: Illinois says kids under 14 can’t be left home alone, Maryland mandates the age of 8, and Oregon says 10.
While there are unambiguous cases of child neglect when very young children are left to fend for themselves, it becomes less clear once a child is older and has become more responsible and trustworthy.
The law can be murky…and applied inconsistently
A striking example of the law’s vagaries regarding child neglect became nationwide news in August 2016. A Maryland mother was vacationing in Delaware with her two young kids. She hopped out to pick up dinner, telling her 8- and 9-year-old children to stay indoors.
They didn’t heed her command and ventured outside with the family dogs, which ran off and almost got hit by a car. When the motorist asked the youngsters if their parents were around, they gave conflicting answers. The driver, who thought the children were only 5 or 6 years old, called the police.
The mother was arrested for child endangerment, which triggered a spirited debate around the country. Some strongly criticized the mother, while others argued that the police had heavy-handedly intruded into a family matter. Considering her home state laws (again, Maryland parents can leave kids home alone starting at age 8) and the burden of proving that she intentionally acted in a manner that compromised the welfare of her children, Delaware authorities dropped the case against her a few months later.
Heather L. Sunderman, a family law attorney with Mirsky Law Group, LLC in the Washington, DC area, notes that in Maryland a parent can still be charged with child neglect even if the children are over 8—depending on the circumstances. So while charges were dropped in Delaware, the mother could have been charged had she been in her home state.
While the Delaware incident highlights the difficulties that both authorities and parents have in interpreting child neglect statutes, some cases are anything but foggy. Consider the case of the Florida mother who took off for a week-long California vacation, leaving her three children alone, allegedly with eldest, an 11-year-old, in charge of two younger siblings, ages 9 and 8.
When the mom was confronted by Florida authorities, she told them that she’d left the children under their grandmother’s supervision. Deputies disputed this, and the mother was arrested on three counts of child neglect and is currently awaiting trial.
What should parents do?
In the absence of clear laws, what can parents do to ensure they’re not at risk of a visit from CPS and perhaps an arrest?
First off, if you’ve decided your child is mature enough to stay home alone, ChildWelfare.gov outlines steps you should take before heading out. Go over safety rules, such as using appliances, being on the internet, or taking a bath. Be sure your kids understand if they are allowed to answer the phone or the door. And provide them with a list of activities or chores, so they don’t become bored, which can increase the risk of accident or injury. Finally, discuss what they should do if an emergency arises, and check in frequently to make sure everything is okay.
Legally speaking, Katie Kiihnl Leonard, a partner at the Atlanta, Georgia family law firm of Boyd Collar Nolen & Tuggle, notes that in the absence of concrete age guidelines, parents should consider these factors in determining if their child is ready to be left alone at home:
- The age and maturity of the child
- Whether the child is responsible for watching other children
- Whether the child has the capacity to call 911 or undertake other emergency efforts if necessary
- The length of time the child will be unattended
- The time of day
- The purpose of leaving (e.g., a grocery store run versus going out socially at night)
- If the child has the means to contact a trusted adult
- How often the child is left alone
“[These] would all be relevant considerations to a social worker or a judge,” Leonard says.
When in doubt, get a sitter
If parents aren’t sure whether leaving their child alone is appropriate, Leonard suggests they hire a sitter. “Parents should use good common sense in weighing the factors listed above, with the safety and well-being of the children being paramount. If there is a doubt, then secure childcare,” she says.
Leonard adds that it can be a good idea for parents to consult a professional, such as a school guidance counselor, teacher, principal, child psychologist, pediatrician, or lawyer before making the decision to leave their children alone. Parents generally know their child best, but an outside opinion can help swing the decision in the appropriate direction.
While the law may be on your side, it’s crucial to weigh all factors before heading out without your kids, even if it’s just to pick up dinner. After all, their safety—and possibly yours—is at stake.