It may not be sterling parenting to leave kids home alone, but is it legal?
Leaving a minor in your house without a babysitter or guardian may be asking for trouble. Then again, society doesn't expect every single parent to afford daycare or a nanny until his or her child is 18.
Maybe by examining the following legal precepts, parents will have a better understanding of whether it is legal to leave their kids home alone:
No Federal Law on Leaving Kids Home Alone
Like many facets of the law, the legality of your children staying at home unattended is the province of the states. The Child Welfare Information Gateway, a part of the Children's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recommends considering the following before leaving your child at home:
- Your child's well-being,
- Your child's willingness to stay home alone, and
- State laws and policies.
Since the first two are best known by parents and not legal professionals, we'll focus on state laws and policies.
State Laws: Providing 'Adequate' Supervision
Many states mandate or at least recommend that parents provide "adequate" supervision for their children. There's really not a good definition that encapsulates this standard, but here are some good examples of adequate supervisors:
- An older sibling (typically at least 15 years of age),
- An adult family friend or relative, or
- A responsible babysitter.
Colorado's Department of Human Services notes that if a child is left alone, he or she needs to know where his or her parents are and how they can be reached. If you don't trust your child to manage this information by him or herself, it may not be a good idea to leave your child home alone.
Potential Liability for Negligent Supervision
On the other hand, parents may be jailed for negligent supervision when they:
- Leave their children alone in a car,
- Leave their children in the care of strangers, or
- Leave a child alone in a house with conditions that pose a substantial risk to him or her.
Some state laws also spell out how old children can be before they're left home alone; Illinois, Oregon, and Maryland require children to be 14, 10, and 8, respectively. Leaving a younger child alone in these states may qualify as negligent supervision.
With some exceptions, the law leaves the question of kids home alone largely to be answered by parents, who will hopefully make smart choices for their children.
Editor's Note, June 7, 2016: This post was first published in June 2014. It has since been updated.