Each state has laws that make leaving a child home alone without supervision illegal. Several factors determine whether leaving a child home alone is illegal. These include (among others) the amount of time the child is left home alone, the age of the child, and whether the parent acted with deliberate disregard for the child’s safety.

What Constitutes Leaving a Child Home Alone?

The law defines “leaving a child home alone” as an adult, with parental responsibilities, leaving the home with the child left unsupervised. Some states define the age at and under which a child may not be left home alone. For example, Maryland makes it illegal for a person caring for a child under 8 years of age to be locked or confined in the home while the caregiver is absent and the house is out of sight of the caregiver. 

The vast majority of states do not specify a specific age below which a parent may not leave a child home alone. Most states consider the child’s age and a variety of other factors. These  include:

  • The child’s emotional maturity level;
  • The amount of time for which a child is left alone;
    • For example, under Illinois law, a parent commits child neglect when that parent leaves a child under 14 alone without supervision for an unreasonable period of time; 
  • Whether the parent acted with 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 the child’s safety, or physical or mental health, or welfare;
  • The safety of the area in which the child resides;
  • Whether the child is left home alone under dangerous circumstances (such as when the front door is left open, or when the oven is running);
  • Whether arrangements have been made for the child’s safety while the parent is away;
    • Such arrangements include a parent’s ensuring the child is left with a responsible person while the parent is away. In most states, the responsible person need not be 18 years or older. The responsible person may be someone of at least 14 years of age in some states. The responsible person may be someone of at least 15 or 16 years of age in others;
  • Whether the child is familiar with procedures to follow in the event of an emergency, such as a fire or a hurricane; and
  • Whether the child has knowledge of how and where to locate a parent who is outside of the home (e.g., by cell phone).

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

If an individual reports that a child has been left unattended, the state agency responsible for child welfare (Child Protective Services or CPS) will likely investigate the claims made in the report. The investigation consists of gathering the relevant facts. Investigators may question the parent(s), child, and any individuals who may have witnessed the incident. Investigators may also question other individuals with relevant information. 

The parent(s) 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 was subjecting the child to endangerment by leaving the child home alone, the agency may have the child removed from the home. Alternatively, they may file a petition with a family court to have the child removed from the parent’s care.

What Constitutes Child Abandonment?

A parent may be prosecuted for child abandonment if that parent leaves a child home alone. Child abandonment consists of a parent’s absence from the home for a time period that subjects the child  to substantial risk of harm. An example of child abandonment is when a parent intentionally leaves a child home alone, without a responsible individual to supervise the child.

If abandonment has occurred, a child may be permanently removed from the home. Permanent removal requires a court order. The family court judge who orders the removal may order that the child be placed with a relative or neighbor, if judge finds it is in the best interests of the child to do so. 

The court must find that the relative or neighbor is a suitable parent. The court must also find that the neighbor intends to establish a sincere, loving, parent-child relationship with the child. The relative or neighbor must demonstrate that they understand the rights and responsibilities of becoming a parent of the child.

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

You should consult with a  criminaI defense attorney if you are being investigated or facing charges for leaving a child at home alone. An experienced family or criminal defense attorney can advise you of your rights, assist you in preparing a defense, and represent you in court.