My son was left home alone for the first time while my wife ran to the store. He literally didn’t move one inch off the couch and probably wouldn’t have noticed if she was gone for five hours as long as Jesse kept on playing on the TV. But when he was asked to go with us somewhere a week later, he recalled that we left him once and insisted we should do so again.
So how old should your child be before you leave them home alone? It’s one of those gray areas in parenting. What if it’s just for 20 minutes while you run a quick errand, or after school for an hour until you get home? Some kids seem ready in the early grade school years. Others might not seem mature enough until much later.
It’s a child readiness issue, but also can be a legal issue. Generally, the law doesn’t tell you how to raise your kids, but this is different. It reminds me of those occasional news stories about parents who get arrested after going on vacation and leaving their young kids at home to fend for themselves. Obviously, that’s not a good idea. But a lot of situations are less clear.
In Illinois, it’s considered child abandonment to leave a child younger than 14 alone for more than 24 hours. That seems like the extreme, but I’m sure it happens more than you think. There are other laws against child endangerment that could apply for leaving a child alone for less time, even an hour in the right circumstances. The law also lists several factors to consider in determining whether a parent is guilty of child abandonment. For example, the time of day, whether the child has any special needs, weather conditions, whether anyone else was in charge of the child, etc., will be taken into consideration.
Illinois is actually one of the few states with a law that sets specific guidelines like this. Child abandonment is a Class 4 felony, punishable by 1 to 3 years in prison. A related law says that it’s a Class A misdemeanor to leave a child 6 or younger unattended in a vehicle for more than 10 minutes. Again, it often depends on the other circumstances. Going to prison might not happen every time, but probation and cooperation with DCFS are a possibility.
The point is that police and judges have some leeway. They’ll likely look at all the circumstances. So if you’re careful about safety and don’t act like a reckless parent, you’re probably not going to get arrested for child abandonment or neglect for leaving your kid home alone. The system doesn’t always work perfectly. We can just hope that it works most of the time, punishing bad parents while giving everyone else the freedom to raise their children without interference from the law.
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