Parents left to decide when a child is old enough to stay home alone


by By JESSICA MEYERS / The Dallas Morning News

Posted on August 19, 2009 at 7:59 AM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 21 at 3:47 PM

Laws govern when children can drive, vote, drink, even quit school. But in Texas, there's no limit on the age when a child can stay home alone.

The actions of a 13-year-old Plano girl who helped thwart a robbery last week while home with only her 6-year-old sister have focused attention on issues of child supervision.

But neither law enforcement agencies nor the courts clearly state when a latch-key kid turns into a case of neglect.

Authorities say factors such as a child's maturity and the safety of the neighborhood vary too much to set a definitive rule. But they hasten to provide recommendations, leaving parents to determine when their child is ready to handle an empty house.

"Anytime a child is involved, there's always legal responsibility," said Plano police detective Jerry Minton, whose department handled the much-played 911 call from Plano teenager Shykeema Polk. "But it's not like a homicide where you have an action and a dead person. There are all kinds of various things in between when a child is left home alone. It's a case-by-case basis."

Police officers look for signs of "outright neglect" such as a child locked in a closet or a 9-month-old in a vacant home, he said. Such cases are referred to state authorities.

But Texas' Department of Family and Protective Services offers little further clarification on parental duty and the blurry line between unsupervised and abandoned.

"Neglect comes in when you place a child or fail to remove a child from a situation where they cannot protect themselves or care for themselves," said Marissa Gonzales, a spokeswoman for the agency.

Does that mean a 5-year-old watched by an 11-year-old? Or a 10-year-old who accidentally sets the kitchen on fire while home alone making toast?

Both. Or neither.

"It has a lot to do with the child's ability to manage a situation and their ability to protect themselves," she said. "Every situation is different and every child is different."

About 60 percent of the agency's cases last year were the result of inadequate supervision.

The department advises weighing the age and emotional maturity of a child before leaving him or her unsupervised, but lists no minimum age. Agency officials also suggest evaluating home security, a child's ability to respond to emergencies and whether the child has a mental disability. The length of time alone, accessibility to other adults and knowledge of a parent's whereabouts are also considerations, they say.

What this means is that it's essentially about parents' common sense, said Howard Davidson, the director of the American Bar Association's Center on Children and the Law in Washington, D.C.

Only a few states have child supervision laws for this reason, he said. "It all comes down to judgment decisions."

Nebulous term

But even "common sense" is a nebulous term for parents trying to understand what's best for their child.

Shallah Barfield went through the nightmare parents envision when they leave their children alone. Two men broke into their Plano house Thursday morning when only her two daughters were there.

Shykeema's response, Barfield said, is vindication she made the right decision in leaving them alone.

"The doors were locked. She is 13; it's summertime and my husband would be home by the afternoon," she said. "This is an appropriate age to leave a child alone. You can see her quick thinking."

But Destiny Herndon-DeLaRosa, a mother of three in Richardson, said she would be not leave her children alone.

"A 13-year-old who is caring for a 6-year-old, I think that would terrify me as a mother," said said Herndon-DeLaRosa, 26. "I don't know that there should be an age when children are left alone."

Herndon-DeLaRosa, who has an 8-, 3- and 1-year-old, said she recognizes the financial hardships constant supervision requires, but she doubts that young children are mature enough to be left alone.

"At 8 or 9 your brain is not developed enough to deal with the decisions you'd have to make, and as you get older you are facing a whole new set of challenges. These days you have no parents at home and look at all the problems children are facing. I can't help but think the two are linked."But Duane Green of The Colony, who has 11- and 7-year-old children, said, "It seems like the older daughter had a pretty good sense about her, by how she reacted."

Varying responses

Not all children would have responded that way, said Dr. Kerby Alvy, a child psychologist who founded the California-based Center for the Improvement of Child Caring and the National Effective Parenting Initiative.

"That's always a problem with something like this," he said. "Some 7- or 8-year-olds may be quite dependable and capable, and others may not have a clue what to do in case of an emergency."

The National Effective Parenting Initiative suggests that no child under 15 years old be left alone for extended periods of time, particularly overnight. But if the child is trustworthy and mature, it's "not totally forbidden to leave him alone for a very short period of time," Alvy said.

It's in the early teens that people develop thinking capacity with multiple dimensions and can assess key situations like Shykeema did, he added.

Parents should look for "a child where experience has proven that he or she can take care of himself," Alvy said. "Age is kind of just a guideline for that."

Advice for parents

EVALUATE: Determine whether children are ready by considering their maturity and the safety and familiarity of the neighborhood.

CLARIFY: Establish clear rules and specific routines. Discuss whether friends are allowed into the house, whether the child can go outside and how far, time limits for telephone conversation and acceptable snacks. Make a schedule of activities and post it on the refrigerator.

REVIEW: Go over important telephone numbers and post them next to the schedule. Review safety rules such as when the doorbell rings or a fire breaks out.

REASSURE: Help the children feel connected to you while you are gone by leaving a special message or a surprise snack.

START SLOWLY: Begin with short intervals of absence and gradually increase their frequency and length.

SOURCE: Erna Fishaut, University of Minnesota Extension