When Are Children Old Enough to Be Left Alone?

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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.

24 comments on “When Are Children Old Enough to Be Left Alone?

  1. From what I understand the “age of reason” is 8 in NC. (Correct me if I’m wrong please.) so, theoretically they can be charged as adults for crimes they committ after age 8. Which quite frankly, NC charges juveniles as adults all the time but that’s a totally different issue. So considering the fact that a child can be charged as an adult at age 8 for crimes they’ve committed then at age 8 they should legally be allowed to be left alone for a reasonable amount of time w/o a parent having to risk arrest and DSS involvement. DSS guidelines first explore if the child “neglected” was under the age if 8. There needs to be conformity b/w agencies and the general statutes.

  2. It is much more common to see parents prosecuted under 14-318.2 (Child Abuse creates or allows to be created a substantial risk of physical injury) for leaving young children home alone. I think most law enforcement officers use the guidance in 14-318 in regards to considering anyone under 8 unfit to be home alone. In reality, a totality of the circumstances approach needs to be taken to analyze the child’s maturity, what is left in the home, the length of time left alone, the proximity of an adult in case of assistance needed, and availability of a phone for emergency use. At the very least the situation needs to be referred to DSS for investigation if something seems unfit. Most of these type cases result in deferred prosecution with parenting classes taken unless an actual injury takes place.

    • Agree completely.

      I know of an 8 year old child who drives a work truck on his farm, tends his own garden, and has responsibilities some 21 year old’s probably couldn’t handle. He’d probably be okay on his own in a park for a couple of hours.

      Unfortunately, there’s no Standardized Field Maturity Test that kids can be given to see where they rank on the yet-to-be-developed Maturity Scale. But that is something that should be able to be brought to light in a courtroom setting (if it isn’t established in the field where contact is initially made), and a judge should be able to make a fair ruling based on the facts.

  3. If the McDonald’s shift was after dark the charge would be more reasonable. Otherwise it seems outrageous to charge a mother with a felony (or any crime at all) for leaving her 9-year-old in a park during the daytime. School-aged children are commonly left to roam their neighborhoods unsupervised during the day and early evening. 9-year-olds are in 4th grade. They aren’t in diapers. They are children, not babies. Probably those who chose to prosecute this mother have never been financially dependent on a paltry McDonald’s paycheck.

  4. a parent who leaves their child alone in a park is apparently unaware of the sheer number of predators trolling movie theaters, malls and parks for that special someone who they can coax into their car or a wooded area. whether it be for the sex trade or their own personal pleasure, it is appalling to think that the mother felt safer leaving her child in the park than in letting her sit in the McDonalds while she worked. We would arrest her for leaving the child in a hot car all day but not leaving her exposed to criminals. As to those who extend sympathy for the lousy paycheck and feel sorry for her, I agree but if the child had been taken would you now think she was a monster?? do we have to wait for the child to be injured to hold someone accountable anymore. We seem to think everything is fine and then when something tragic happens…we all say how could this have happened.

    • “The sheer number of predators” is a scare tactic used by the media for ratings. While it obviously differs depending on where you live, most places are still okay for a 9 year old to play without their parents glued to their side. If the child was properly taught not to talk to/go with strangers and there are other adults around (I am assuming this was not a deserted park) then I see no problem. The main change between now and the 1960s is not the number of predators, it is the scare tactics of the media. Being locked in a car is much more dangerous than being allowed to play at the park.

    • This is alarmist and not backed by data – unless you care to provide your sources? The vast majority of child abductions are from someone the child knows (e.g. custody battles).

      http://www.freerangekids.com/crime-statistics/

  5. To clarify an earlier comment…
    In NC, although a child as young as 6 can be charged with a juvenile offense, a juvenile may only be transferred to adult court if the juvenile is at least 13 years old, is charged with committing a felony, and only after a hearing where the court found probable cause.

  6. The “age of reason” should be considered on a case-by-case basis. Some children are more mature than others. One cannot say the “age of reason” is carte blanc for ANY age when it comes to juveniles. It should be gauged upon the mental capacity to take definitive action as circumstances dictate. This is not to say an adult should leave a juvenile alone for long periods of time of course, and especially in charge of other children. There are some adults with whom I would not leave children in their charge (nor anything else), to be perfectly candid. With all this implied, it is my belief that a child under the age of seven should never be left alone for any period of time unsupervised. It’s just not reasonably prudent.

  7. So… Tina… you need the government to decide what is right and what is wrong an to criminally penalize someone when they make a questionable decision? There are sexual predators now, and there have always been sexual predators. The difference now is that everyone that is caught is extremely well publicized and many that are charge and publicized are later acquitted or the charges are dismissed. We hear about it more, but I doubt it is happening more than it used to happen. But, that is besides the point. The point is, the government is not here to legislate your morality or give you parenting advice. The government should set the floor, not the ceiling.

  8. Everyone will have an opinion. Of course no numerical age can say yea or nay to prove acceptable maturity/IQ/experience of the child, for context does matter where situations of time, place, weather, etc. must be factored in. The parent’s job or circumstance is not a factor, just the safety of the child.
    Once something does happen, then the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. The law is there to protect children, not police parents. If there is question or reasonable doubt even without harm happening, then let there be an investigation, warning or charge.
    Nothing trumps the safety of a child. A citizen or policeman can not walk away from an unsupervised child of any age if there is reason to believe the child is in danger.
    No agency is going to give prior approval that it is OK to leave your child alone anywhere, anytime, but rather, declare it is the responsibility of the parent to determine that and then to be held accountable.
    If pushed, public pools and parks might post “Children must be accompanied” signs, which makes it clear, but then, what about letting kids just go play in the woods are neighborhood?
    The burden of parenting is on the parent, not the government. Don’t let your child come to harm is the rule. Common sense of the parent will have to be weighed by concerned citizens, police and courts. There is NO age to license. There is no age that relieves the parent of responsibility.

  9. The vast majority of children who are victimized are the victims of family members or close friends. This AB Honor Roll student was left in her neighborhood park, where she felt extremely safe. We can’t teach our children a better lesson than the world, despite all of the horrible news we are exposed to, is actually a reasonably safe place. This child was safer out in the park, in my opinion, than she would have been left locked in the apartment with strict instructions to not answer the door, etc., and sitting in fear of every creak that occurred. The State traumatized the kid way more by arresting her Mom and placing the kid in foster care for a while.

    • I completely agree, Rebecca Green. And for the state to think that a child would be better off in foster care than with a loving parent who lets her play at the park alone…it completely boggles my mind. Now, how do we change these laws back to their 1970s state? Write to state legislators? I hardly know any parents who haven’t left their school-aged children alone for at least brief periods of time. Could the state seize any of those kids? It’s terrifying.

  10. I think the age a child should be left alone should be 12 years old. And also based on maturity.

  11. Deborah obviously doesnt have children

  12. Thanks for sharing this article and for everyone who commented. I am currently reading up on this, because this past weekend I had a Sheriff’s deputy who wanted to take me in for questioning. Fortunately someone on the other end of the radio had more common sense and they didn’t take me in.

    The situation was that my 10 year old was waiting 20 minutes at a public boat landing, while his older brother and I shuttled vehicles for a canoe trip. I could have taken the 10 year old with us, but he wanted to fish and he has been fishing by himself for years. While we were gone, two people saw my son, the first stopped and spoke with him and thought everything sounded fine, the second didn’t even bother to talk to my son, but immediately called the Sherriff’s Department. The Deputy arrived about the same time that we pulled back in the parking lot. The Deputy claimed that my son could have been abducted. I stood by the fact that most people are good and I don’t teach my children to live in fear of something that is improbable. (In my view, my theory received direct evidence, in the fact that two people saw him and were there to help if needed.) Statistically speaking, I believe that my son was in more danger of being in an accident while driving to the landing than he was by any potential “predator.”

    Then driving home that afternoon, I noticed a playground that was vacant, on a beautiful afternoon. Where are all the kids? Probably sitting around the TV being taught it is not safe to leave their house. Not sure how we change this, but I think we need to educate people and return to reality instead of living in fear.

    Rebecca & Kirstin, thanks for your comments, I tend to agree very closely with your thoughts. As for Deborah, how do you come to the age of 12??? This seems absolutely random. You know at 15 they get their drivers permit right?

  13. I think there is a difference between leaving a child alone in public verses locked in your home. If your child is responsible, then I think it is ok to start leaving them at home (inside locked house) alone for 1-2 hours during daylight hours around age 9. Then you can increase the length of time by about an hour for every 6 months that they safely stay on their own. So by 10 they might be alone for 3-4 hours, at age 11 for 5-6 hours, by 12 for 7-8 hours, and by 13 for 9-10 hours. The idea is that staying alone for longer periods of time requires more responsiblity, self control, and life skills (preparing snack/meals etc). As they demonstrate their ability to handle the situation, you increase the amount of time they are allowed to stay alone.

    Now as for leaving a child alone in a park or other public place. I think that time should be significantly less than the amount of time you allow them to stay at home because there are many additional factors that you have less control over. The weather could worsen. An unexpected danger like an aggressive dog or mean kid or creepy stranger could come up. Your child may not be respectful of rules and other people as much as they should as the amount of time without supervision increases and this could disturb others around them. And more.

    So in my opinion it was not a good idea for the mom to leave the 9 year old alone in the park while she worked. If the nine year old had a friend or sibling the same age or older,then I would be ok with her being there for about an hour or so, maybe until dad could get off of work. Anything over two hours, I would think the child should be 12ish and still have a friend. There is safety in numbers. If you fall and get hurt, your friend can get help. Predators are less likely to approach groups than they are individuals. Also, the child will be less likely to be lonely.

    • Very well put I completely agree with you and sounds like a plan the needs to be published somewhere for guidelines of leaving your child home alone. Everything takes practice before your good at it. Children left home alone and earning more time with successful uneventful moments at home gives them something to work for and feel as though they are growing in this crazy world.

  14. I have a 10 and 14th year old sons. I leave them home sometime when I go into work. I’m l wrong. In the state of NC. Are my son’s old enough to stay alone until l get off of work

  15. Hi, just read this article. How would the time frame impact the legality? For example, if a mother away from home from 4am to 6pm but leaves a 14 yo babysitting a infant and a 5yo? Is that within the law? What if the 14yo doesnt want to do it? Does the child’s demeanor impact the legality? Any comments would be appreciated. Thanks!

  16. I just found out when my (soon to be) 10 year old goes to his dads house for the weekend, he sits in the car for an hour while his dad goes to the gym. I am upset but what I gather from this is that it completely legal in NC?

    • Not since 2009 is illegal to leave a child under 16 alone in a car

    • My son was 8 years old and left in the car with 2 younger siblings that his dad has with his current partner and he just finally got recorded with court as public nuisance so he wouldn’t have child endangerment on his record. I was furious with this and my child was traumatized with the cops finding him and the 2 other children in the car while his dad was in a store. He was crying and thinking they were going to take his dad to jail. The laws are crap!!

  17. My 6 and 8 old ride the bus home from school and walk up the Rd into our development. One day a week, I am working and they have to be alone for 10-30min max after they get off the bus. They know where the snacks are, and that they are allowed 1 for each child, they turn on the tv or play a game quietly, but DO NOT go outside or answer the door.
    On a related note- you could throw a rock at the neighbors on either side of us- and if a problem arose they know they could go to him/her

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