When is it safe to leave your kids home alone?
It’s one of the trickiest questions that parents face as their children grow up. The right age depends on the kid and the family. But according to state law, the right age is fairly black and white: It’s 14.
A bill in Springfield would lower that to 12, a response to parents who say the current 14-year-old minimum age is unreasonably high. Today a child under the age of 14 who is left without supervision for “an unreasonable amount of time” is considered neglected. Technically, a parent can be charged with child abandonment if they leave a 13-year-old home alone to babysit their 9-year-old sibling.
“That’s a pretty high age. It doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said state Rep. Joe Sosnowski, R-Rockford, who introduced the so-called “babysitting bill” to lower that home-alone age to 12.
Illinois’ 14-year-old threshold is higher than all other states with a similar statute, Sosnowski said. Only 14 states specify a certain age, with the most common being 10, he said.
“The fact that we don’t see a lot of prosecution for this particular (law) points to the fact that there is smart local discretion being taken,” Sosnowski said on GLT’s Sound Ideas. “But again, at a state level, we want to safeguard families from being prosecuted unjustly.”
While Bloomington-Normal police aren’t sending in SWAT teams to catch parents leaving their 13-year-olds home alone after school, several local parents told GLT that the current law makes it harder to arrange child care, causes needless anxiety, and doesn’t reflect their child’s maturity.
Like many parents, Jessica McDermott of Bloomington is a working mom who cobbles together child care for their soon-to-be 12-year-old and 5-year-old daughters.
This summer, the 5-year-old will go to day care. Some days the older daughter will stay with family in Pontiac. On others McDermott will work from home so she’s not alone.
Their summer child care plans would be a whole lot easier if the 12-year-old could be legally home alone or watch her sister occasionally, McDermott said. It would also help with the little things, she said, like quick trips to the grocery store or the gym to exercise.
“It would be a huge convenience,” McDermott said. “I wouldn’t feel like, oh what if somebody finds out and has a grudge against me and wants to report me.”
She added: “The law (‘an unreasonable amount of time’) is very vague. Maybe it’s OK for me to leave them alone. But I’m not really sure and I don’t want to chance getting in trouble.”
Liz Tomera of Normal, a mother of three, said the rules should reflect that life can be messy. She said she needs the latitude to leave her younger kids alone if, say, she needs to rush out for 15 minutes if her husband’s car breaks down on the way home from work.
“Sometimes you just don’t have a choice,” said Tomera. “There are plenty of parents who have to go to work all day, and they don’t have a choice but to leave their kids home if there’s a snow day or whatever. I wish people would be mindful of that.”
Other parents say the law hits them in the pocketbook.
RaNelle Hartless of Normal has two daughters, 13 and 9. She works part-time as a recess monitor at a Unit 5 school, so she can be home when the kids get out. She’s considered getting a 9-to-5 full-time job somewhere, but she says it’s not worth it because the 13-year-old can’t legally watch her little sister. Their family would just have to spend that extra money on after-school care.
“Which makes no sense to me, when I have a teenager who is perfectly capable of being home after school to take care of my little one,” Hartless said.
Andrew Locke of Normal has a 15-year-old daughter. He said she knows how to take care of herself.
When his daughter was 9, Locke was charged with misdemeanor child endangerment after she fell down some stairs and injured her knee while he was at work and she was home alone. Locke said a neighbor was supposed to be watching her, but police arrested him and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services got involved. Locke was eventually found not guilty.
“I don’t think it’s the government’s role to tell us how we may or may not raise our child,” Locke said. “Why should anybody else get involved?”
Illinois’ 14-year-old minimum age came as a legislative overreaction to an infamous 1992 case in which two St. Charles parents left their 9-year-old and 4-year-old daughters home alone while they spent a week in Mexico, said Rep. Sosnowski, the bill sponsor. The case drew international attention.
So why lower it to 12? Why not 11 or 13?
“We thought it was a movement in the right direction,” Sosnowski said. “That gives us some time to look at it, see how it works. We can always take a look at it again and adjust it downward again.”
The bill, if approved, won’t have a huge impact on families in general, said Dottie Squire with the Child Care Resource Service (CCRS), which helps families find child care in Champaign, Vermilion, Macon, Douglas, Iroquois and Piatt counties.
“Parents who feel like their kids are ready are already (letting them) stay home,” Squire said.
It’s not the age that should determine if it’s OK to leave them alone, she said. It’s all about how they’ve been prepared. Do they know when it’s OK to open the door for someone? Are there emergency contacts close by, like a neighbor? Do you consider your neighborhood safe?
CCRS even offers a checklist for parents to go through.
“It’s just a huge number of questions that the family needs to ask themselves before they just say, ‘OK, you can stay home with your siblings or by yourself,’” Squire said.
The bill is HB 2334. It remains pending in the House.
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