Having to leave a child home alone isn't an easy decision, even with a fully capable child and when your trip to the store is just going to last a few minutes. Depending on where you live, there may be laws in place to help you make that decision and to know where the state draws the line at neglect. In this article, you'll learn about laws for when you can leave a child home alone, including helpful guidelines covering:
- when children can be left home alone by age;
- when you can tell whether a child is capable of being left home alone; and
- safety tips for when you leave a child home alone.
Leaving a Child Home Alone and the Law
Only a couple of states specify a legal age to leave a child home alone, including Maryland (age 8) and Illinois (age 14). However, most states have guidelines with the Department of Health and Human Services or other child protective agencies that test a child's ability to be left home alone. Factors may include the child's age and maturity, the overall safety of the surrounding area/circumstances, and arrangements made to secure the child's safety.
Below are general guidelines to follow when considering the age range when can you leave kids home alone:
- 7 & Under - Should not be left alone for any period of time. This may include leaving children unattended in cars, playgrounds, and backyards. The determining consideration would be the dangers in the environment and the ability of the caretaker to intervene.
- 8 to 10 Years - Should not be left alone for more than 1½ hours and only during daylight and early evening hours.
- 11 to 12 Years - May be left alone for up to 3 hours but not late at night or in circumstances requiring inappropriate responsibility.
- 13 to 15 Years - May be left unsupervised, but not overnight.
- 16 to 17 Years - May be left unsupervised (in some cases, for up to two consecutive overnight periods).
How to Know If a Child Is Ready to Stay at Home Alone
It's important to note that no two children are alike, and parents must decide on a case-by-case basis what's best for their child. Therefore, in addition to the general guidelines listed above, a parent or caretaker should consider the following before they leave a child home alone:
- The age and maturity level of the child;
- The length of time the child will need to stay home alone;
- Whether the child works well independently and follows directions;
- The age and number of other children being left at home;
- The safety of the surrounding neighborhood;
- Willingness of neighbors to check in with the child during the day; and
- Whether the child would feel "safe" staying home alone.
When Can You Leave a Child Home Alone: Safety Tips
Finally, if leaving kids home alone is a necessity -- at least where older children are involved -- you can follow the following recommendations:
- Have the child memorize their full name, address, and telephone number.
- Post a list of emergency, local, and long distance numbers to call in the event of an emergency.
- Call the child several times during the day while you are away.
- Teach the child how to work the locks on windows and doors and to lock them when at home.
- Tell the child not to go into other people's home (even neighbors) without your permission.
- Designate a "safe house" to run to if the child ever feels that they're in danger.
- Never allow a child to work the oven or stove without a parent or adult caretaker.
- Consider programs offered by schools, organizations, and churches as an alternative to leaving a child home alone for extended periods time.
In addition to the suggestions listed above, it's always a good idea to inform immediate neighbors that your child may be home alone on some days. Not only can a neighbor be a good resource in the event of an emergency, it can help alleviate potential calls to child protective services by unaware neighbors.
Questions About Leaving a Child Home Alone? Get Legal Help Today
Is your child too young to be at home alone? That question is never an easy one to answer, but the law in your state does provide guidance. Because your child's safety is of paramount importance, speak with a legal expert who can provide you with a clear answer. A family law attorney in your jurisdiction will be able to explain the laws of your state and help you understand how to comply with them.