When Are Children Old Enough to Be Left Alone?

The prosecution of a South Carolina mother who left her 9-year-old child unattended in a park several days in a row while the mother worked her shift at a nearby McDonald’s has been widely covered and roundly criticized.  The mother reportedly was charged as a result of the incident with unlawful neglect of a child, a felony under South Carolina law.

I thought about that mother last night as I was reading Ramona the Pest, a Beverly Clearly classic, to my daughter at bedtime.  In last night’s chapter, Ramona Quimby’s mother leaves Ramona at home alone one school morning and instructs her to begin walking to school at 8:15 a.m.  Ramona is in kindergarten.  Ramona’s mother is portrayed throughout the book as a reasonable and caring parent, and her decision to leave Ramona at home while she takes her older daughter to the doctor is written about as though it is a perfectly reasonable choice.  I flipped to the front of the book to see the copyright date.  1968.  That explains it, I thought.

In 2014, I’m pretty sure that most people would consider it unreasonable to leave a kindergarten age child at home unattended, even without instructing the child to later walk herself to school.  I’m less sure about the public consensus on the decision the South Carolina mother made.  My guess is that nearly everyone would view it as not ideal; some might call it unreasonable; and an even smaller number might consider it criminal.

In North Carolina, it is a Class 1 misdemeanor for a person who is at least 16 years old to knowingly or willfully cause a juvenile to be in a place or condition where the juvenile could be adjudicated neglected.  See G.S. 14-316.1.  This crime, which also applies to circumstances in which the minor could be adjudicated delinquent, undisciplined or abused, is commonly referred to as “contributing to the delinquency of a minor.”

The North Carolina Juvenile Code defines a “neglected juvenile” in part as one who does not receive proper care, supervision, or discipline from the juvenile’s parent, guardian, custodian, or caretaker. G.S. 7B-101(15).  While North Carolina’s appellate courts have considered young children who are left unattended to be neglected within the meaning of this provision, the cases in which they have done so have also involved other types of neglectful behavior.  See, e.g., In re Gleisner, 141 N.C. App. 475, 478-79 (2000) (finding substantial evidence of neglect based in part on mother’s act of leaving her eight-year-old daughter alone for three and a half hours as a form of discipline); In re Bell, 107 N.C. App. 566, 567-69 (1992) (noting that county Department of Social Services first became involved when it received a report stating that four children under the age of six had been left alone overnight, and affirming trial court’s adjudication of neglect based on the mother’s failure to ensure that her children received proper treatment from the county health department, to use her food stamps so as to keep an adequate supply of food in the house, and to take full advantage of free day care); see also In re D.M., 185 N.C. App. 159, 647 S.E.2d 689 (2007) (noting that trial court had adjudicated children neglected following petition alleging, among other neglectful acts, that children ages seven, six and four had been left alone for three days while their mother traveled out of town).

Indeed, in In re Stumbo, 357 N.C. 279, 284 (2003), the North Carolina Supreme Court noted that “not every act of negligence on the part of parents or other care givers constitutes “neglect” under the law and results in a “neglected juvenile” as “[s]uch a holding would subject every misstep by a care giver to the full impact of [the Juvenile Code],” including mandatory investigations by the Department of Social Services.

And, contrary to pervasive lore, no statute establishes a presumptive age at which a child may be left unattended.  Cf. G.S. 14-318 (making it a Class 1 misdemeanor to go away from a building, leaving any child under 8 locked or otherwise confined “so as to expose the child to danger by fire” without leaving some person of the age of discretion in charge of the child).

Readers, what’s your view?  Was prosecution of the South Carolina mom warranted?  And at what age is it appropriate to leave a child home alone?  From what I hear, once children are old enough to be left at home without risking allegations of neglect, you can’t leave them unattended for fear of other consequences.