Every state in the United States has laws that make leaving a child home alone without supervision illegal. There are several factors that determine when leaving a child home alone is illegal. These include, among others, the duration of time the child is left home alone, and whether or not the parent acted with deliberate disregard for the child’s safety.

Some states provide a legal age to leave a child home alone. Most states however, do not. There are, however, some guidelines that have been provided by a collaboration of states and the Department of Health and Human Services to assist parents in making the decision to leave their child home alone. These guidelines include:

  • A child age 7 and under cannot be left alone at home for any period of the time. This also includes leaving the child unattended in the car, backyard, or playground. This is a vulnerable age and leaving them unattended would be a high risk to their safety;
  • A child ages 8 to 10 is permitted to be home alone only during daylight or early morning hours for no longer than 1 and ½ hours;
  • A child ages 11 to 12 can be left alone during the day for up to 3 hours but not late at night;
  • A child ages 13 to 15 is permitted to be left unsupervised, but not overnight; and
  • A child ages 16 to 17 can be left unsupervised for up to 2 days.

What are the Legal Consequences of Leaving a Child Home Alone?

Leaving a child home alone is legally defined as when an adult, with parental responsibilities, leaves the home and leaves the child unsupervised. Some states provide an age under which a child may not be left home alone. For example, pursuant to Maryland law, it is illegal for an individual caring for a child under 8 years of age to be locked or confined in the home while the caregiver is absent and the home is out of the caregiver’s sight.

Most states, however, as noted above, do not provide a specific age below which a parent is forbidden to leave a child home alone. The majority of states consider the child’s age as well as a variety of other factors. These may include:

  • The emotional maturity level of the child;
  • The amount of time a child is left alone;
    • For example, under Illinois law, a parent commits child neglect when they leave a child under 14 alone without supervision for an unreasonable period of time;
  • Whether the parent acted with a deliberate disregard for the well-being of the child;
    • For example, in Illinois, a parent commits child neglect when the parent leaves the child home for an unreasonable period of time without regard for their safety, physical or mental health, or welfare;
  • The safety of the area where the child resides;
  • Whether the child is left home alone under dangerous circumstances, for example, when the front door is left open, or when the oven is running;
  • Whether or not any arrangements have been made for the child’s safety while the parent is away;
    • Such arrangements may include a parent leaving the child with a responsible individual while they are away. In most states, the responsible individual need not be 18 years or older. In some states, the responsible individual may be someone of at least 14 years of age. In other states, the responsible individual may be someone of at least 15 or 16 years of age;
  • Whether or not the child is familiar with what procedures to follow in the event of an emergency, such as a fire or a tornado; and
  • Whether or not the child has knowledge of where and how to locate a parent who is outside of the home, for example, by using a cell phone.

It is important to note that, depending on the circumstances, an individual can go to jail for leaving a child home alone.

What are the Legal Consequences of Leaving a Child Home Alone?

If an individual reports a child has been left unattended, the state agency that is responsible for child welfare, such as Child Protective Services, CPS, will likely investigate the claims made in the report. An investigation will consist of gathering the facts relevant to the case. Investigators may question the parent or parents, the child, or any individuals who may have witnessed the incident. Investigators may also question other individuals they believe may have relevant information.

The parent or parents who left the child home alone may be subject to criminal penalties for child abandonment or child endangerment. If the child welfare agency concludes that the parent or parents were subjecting the child to endangerment by leaving them home alone, the agency may have the child removed from the home. Alternatively, CPS may file a petition with a family court to have the child removed from the parent or parent’s care.

It is extremely important for an individual to be familiar with the guidelines for the state in which they reside for leaving their child home alone. Although the child may appear ready, it may be illegal to leave them home alone without adult supervision. The consequences of leaving a child home alone vary by state but most implement fines or jail time.

A court may not intervene unless it finds the child is being harmed. Although parenting their child is an individual’s fundamental right, a court will want to ensure the safety and well being of the child. Because of this, if the court finds any possible indication of parental neglect, it will likely investigate further.

What Constitutes Child Abandonment?

A parent or parents may be prosecuted for child abandonment if they leave their child home alone. Child abandonment includes the parent or parent’s absence from the home for a period of time that subjects the child to a substantial risk of harm. For example, child abandonment occurs when a parent intentionally leaves a child home alone without another responsible individual to supervise them.

If abandonment occurs, a child may be permanently removed from the home. Permanently removing a child from a home requires a court order. A family court judge who orders the removal may order that the child be placed with a relative or neighbor if the court finds it in the best interest of the child to do so.

In order to place the child, the court must find that the relative or neighbor is a suitable parent for the child. The court must also find that the individual, such as the neighbor, intends to establish a sincere, loving, parent-child relationship with the child. The relative or neighbor must show the court that they understand the rights and responsibilities of becoming the parent of the child.

Do I Need a Lawyer If I Am Charged with Child Abandonment?

Yes, it is essential to have the assistance of an experienced criminal lawyer if you are facing any charges related to child abandonment or leaving your child home alone. An attorney can review your case, advise you of your rights, and represent you in court, if necessary. Having an attorney on your side can mean the difference between keeping your child at home and having them placed with another family.