You hear stories in the news, a child home alone died in a fire -- or -- two children, ages, 6 and 8 were placed in protective custody after a neighbor reported them home alone. It can be tempting, particularly if a family has financial stressors, to rationalize that children will be just fine if left unsupervised. Parents please use caution. If something goes awry, you will have to live with the consequences that could be dire. I sit on the Child Fatality Review Team for NYC and I can tell you, no parent thought that their child could perish by being home alone for a few hours. But, unfortunately it happens. And, the parent will be criminally charged.
While every parent eventually faces the decision to leave their child home alone for the first time, parents need to be sure their children have the skills and maturity to handle the situation safely, as well be aware of the laws in their state regarding this issue. Being trusted to stay home alone can be a positive experience for a child who is mature and well-prepared. However, children, especially those under 12 years-old, face real risks when left unsupervised, including accidents, fires, leaving the house unattended, and the inability to deal with strangers. The NYSPCC recommends that children under the age of 12 should never be left home alone.
Working parents need to explore all options available to them to ensure their child's safety. These include: relatives, school programs, community resources, neighbors or bringing the child to work. Single parents especially need to make an effort to find alternatives.
To increase the safety of your child and ease your stress level when your child is home alone:
• Rehearse different scenarios with your children. What do they do when the doorbell rings; how do they respond to strangers on the phone; what will they do if they cannot reach you.
• Set clear rules for what they can and cannot do when you are not home, for example, rules for cooking, completing their homework, leaving the house, or having friends over.
• Try a "test run" leaving the child alone for just one hour and then explore how they felt. If they were scared or anxious, they may not be ready. Talk to them about their concerns.
• Be sure to have phone numbers posted where you can be reached. List numbers for fire and police, neighbors and relatives. Make sure your child knows how to call 911.
• If your children arrive home to an empty house, be sure to call and check in with them. Ask a neighbor to check in on them.
• Always let your children know where you are - and if you are going to be late.
With the proper guidelines, being home for limited periods of time can increase independence, responsibility and confidence in your children. Please make sure they are ready for the challenge.
If you are concerned about a child who appears to be neglected or inadequately supervised, contact your local child protective services agency. In New York, that number is 1-800-342-3720.