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Home alone: How old is old enough for kids to be left without an adult?

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Home alone: How old is old enough for kids to be left without an adult?

Post  Guest on Sun 20 Sep - 14:39

Home alone: How old is old enough for kids to be left without an adult?

September 19, 2009

When Caitlyn Whichard was asked what age she'd want her children's baby sitter to be, she had a ready answer.

"It's not about the age," began Whichard, 21, of Newport News. "It's about the responsibility."

But when asked if she'd leave a 12-year-old in charge of her kids — 2-year-old Adrianna and 6-month-old Gabriella — Whichard was equally quick.

"Oh, no," she said, "14 at least — and mature."

In fact, she said, she's never left her kids in the care of anyone younger than her 24-year-old friend.

Whichard's two answers highlight the fact that deciding when to leave your kids home alone — or when kids can begin baby-sitting — is a judgment call that can go many ways.

You can drive when you're 16. You can vote when you're 18. You can drink when you're 21. But when it comes to when parents can leave kids home alone, there's no set line under law.

York County resident Pam Pouchot said she once asked the Virginia Department of Social Services about when a child could be left alone. When she was told there was no specific age under law, she asked if it would be OK to leave an infant unattended. She was told no. She asked about a 3-year-old. She was told no again.

"Then I asked about a 5-year-old," Pouchot said. "I was told that if the child knew how to dial 911, and there was a neighbor nearby for emergencies, it was OK. Needless to say, I was appalled."

Pouchot thinks it should be a crime to leave anyone 13 or younger home alone. "My thoughts are that if the child is still playing with Barbie dolls, I would not want to put them in a position of responsibility for another human being," Pouchot said.

The issue was highlighted recently when the Daily Press reported that a Newport News woman, Darlene P. Marsh, was charged with felony child neglect after deputies tried to serve her with warrants on other charges and found her 12-year-old boy in charge of a 10-year-old girl and 7-year-old boy.

That created a flurry of posts online, with people writing to say 12 was a fine age to baby-sit.

But there was more to the Marsh story than first reported. When police attempted to serve three unrelated warrants on Marsh on Aug. 23, they said they discovered the three children alone and there was little food in the house. The children, one of whom had a disability, said they hadn't eaten since the previous night. Police said they reached Marsh by phone and she said she was coming home. Three hours later, she said she wasn't coming, police said.

Marsh — who said she was in Chesapeake trying to visit someone in prison — is contesting the charges. She said the children weren't home alone, but in the care of a 19-year-old neighbor, who Marsh says was there when police arrived. She said that after the police called, she asked her grandmother to go and get the kids.

But police still insisted she come home, and she felt they were "harassing" her to do so. "I'm not coming back right now," she said she told them. "I'll see you all tomorrow."

Under state law, parents or guardians can be charged with felony child neglect if their actions or inactions are so "gross, wanton and culpable" to show a "reckless disregard for human life."

Parents can be charged with a misdemeanor charge of contributing to child neglect if their actions or inactions lead to a child who's "delinquent, in need of services, in need of supervision, or abused or neglected."

That gives wide discretion to police and prosecutors.

Laurel Uhlar, a Newport News deputy commonwealth's attorney who oversees juvenile cases, said that whether to bring charges "depends on the circumstances of any given case."

"It depends on the time of day, location, number of kids the person is baby-sitting, relative maturity level of the child," she said. "There are so many variables that there's no hard and fast rule."

Added Newport News Commonwealth's Attorney Howard Gwynn: "I don't think there's any cookie-cutter formula you can use. You can have a 12-year-old that's immature and a 12-year-old that's incredibly mature."

Hampton Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Leslie Siman-Tov agreed "there's not a bright line rule."

"Twelve is an age where typically it's OK for a kid to baby-sit," she said. "But it depends on the kid ... You have to look at the circumstances and how they came to the attention of law enforcement."

She said bringing charges against the parents is often a closer call in her mind when the unattended child is somewhat younger, such as 7 to 9 years old.

The Red Cross offers baby-sitting classes, with a target group between ages 11 and 15, said Tasha Mainvielle, the local Red Cross' health and safety coordinator. The class focuses on topics such as diapering, bottle feeding and how to act in emergencies.

Whichard, the mother who said she wants baby sitters to be at least 14, said she would also want proof that the child is responsible — such as that they've baby-sat other kids and held a job. She would demand they also be CPR certified and wants them to have a car for emergencies.

"I think it's a child-to-child issue," said Rachel Berry, 28, of Hampton, who was toting a young nephew at the Hampton Wal-Mart. "I was 10 years old and I could stay home by myself. But in some cases, you'd have to wait until you're 15 or 16 years old. I don't think you should legislate a one-size-fits-all."

Susan Baker, a day-care provider from Yorktown, said she'd require that anyone watching her 6-year-old son, Tyler, be at least 15 — and have undergone a baby-sitting training course. She made an exception for her daughter, who began watching her son when she was 14. "A sibling is a little different," she said.

Linda Bailey, of Newport News, has begun letting her daughter Racquel, 13, stay home by herself during the last year. There a couple of ground rules for Racquel: No answering the door and no using the oven.

"I think I'm responsible enough," Racquel said. She said most of her friends at school are allowed to be left at home by themselves. And now Racquel has begun baby-sitting "once in a while."

A vague law

It's against the law to neglect your child, but there's nothing under state law that defines the age at which it's OK to leave your child unattended — or what age children can begin baby-sitting younger kids.

It becomes a judgment call for parents on when it's OK to leave their kids alone or in charge of others. It's also a judgment call for police and prosecutors deciding at what point to second guess the parents and bring criminal child neglect charges against them.


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Re: Home alone: How old is old enough for kids to be left without an adult?

Post  magicslipper on Sun 20 Sep - 16:35

If a child is left alone once then these rules apply but if it is something that occurs on a regular basis then it is classed as neglect by children's services.
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