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September 2000Vol. 1, No. 6When Can Children Stay Safely Home Alone?

Judging by calls placed to the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information, many parents and even professionals are confused about when children can be safely--and legally--left home alone.

Clearinghouse Staff Attorney Kristie Kennedy reports that the Clearinghouse frequently fields calls asking what State laws require. The Clearinghouse does not specifically track laws related to "latchkey kids," but, Kennedy says, it is clear that State as well as local laws on the issue vary widely.

What do we know about the numbers of children being left alone? According to a study conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, one in four children ages 5 to 12 spend time alone after school. The Urban Institute estimates that 22 percent of U.S. children ages 5 to 14 are at home alone at least some of the time.

According to Kennedy, the first best place to seek advice is your local child protective services agency. Other possible sources of guidance include the local police department and local prosecutor's office. Professionals also might want to consult with their State's department of children's services.

Even if a relevant law is on the books in your State or locality, do not expect to find hard and fast rules. Most communities have a "standard of care" based upon many factors. Generally, laws won't say, "At age 14, a child can be left alone legally and safely," says Kennedy. The most important thing is for parents to consider each child individually. Consider the child's age, the length of time he or she will be alone, and his or her confidence, judgement, and capacity for self-care.

The following websites offer guidelines and resources on keeping children safe from injuries in the home and elsewhere: (Editor's note: this link is no longer available)