“Home Alone”: How one extreme Illinois case led to overbroad laws about child supervision

Jeffrey Schwab

Jeffrey Schwab is a staff attorney with the Liberty Justice Center.

Jeffrey Schwab
December 23, 2015

“Home Alone”: How one extreme Illinois case led to overbroad laws about child supervision

Illinois’ real-life “Home Alone” story inspired legislation that gives the state too much power to intrude into parents’ reasonable decisions about their children.

A well-off family from the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, Illinois, accidently leaves their eight-year-old son home alone for several days while they travel to Paris for a family vacation. That’s the familiar plot from the 1990 hit movie “Home Alone.”

But that plot is fictional, and although it’s a light-hearted movie, it raises serious questions, which it also leaves unanswered: When, and for how long, are kids mature enough to be left without supervision, and when should the government step in and punish a parent for doing so? One is left to wonder what legal consequences Kevin McCallister’s parents faced, if any.

A few years after the movie debuted, a St. Charles, Illinois, couple, David and Sharon Schoo, made international headlines when they left their daughters, ages 4 and 9, home alone for nine days, while they went on a vacation in Mexico. The Schoos were dubbed the “Home Alone” couple and the “most hated couple in America.” The parents were charged with criminal child abandonment and child endangerment and after an investigation, were later charged with battery for allegedly kicking and choking their children. They pleaded guilty and received two years probation after a plea deal. Their children were immediately taken out of their care, and the couple eventually agreed to relinquish their parental rights.

This case prompted the nation to revisit the idea of parents leaving children home alone, and to think about what punishments are necessary for parents who abandon their young children.

It also spurred the Illinois General Assembly in 1993 to act to toughen its laws on abandonment and neglect, which increased penalties for parents and gave the state more leeway to find neglect or abandonment.

In Illinois it is criminal child abandonment to knowingly leave a child under the age of 13 without supervision by a responsible person over the age of 14 for a period of 24 hours or more without regard for the mental or physical health, safety or welfare of that child. To determine what “without regard for the mental or physical health, safety, or welfare” means, the law provides 15 factors for consideration.

Furthermore, the Juvenile Court Act provides that “any minor under the age of 14 years whose parent or other person responsible for the minor’s welfare leaves the minor without supervision for an unreasonable period of time without regard for the mental or physical health, safety, or welfare of that minor” is neglected. The law provides 15 nonexhaustive factors to determine whether the period of time was unreasonable and whether the parent left the child “without regard for the mental or physical, health, safety, or welfare of that minor.” Although not a criminal statute, this allows law enforcement with a suspicion that a child is neglected to take the child into custody without a warrant. A court that finds that a child was neglected under the Juvenile Court Act can order the child to be placed in custody away from his or her parents.

In addition, a child of any age up to 14, depending on the circumstances in which he or she is left alone, could be found neglected due to “inadequate supervision” under Department of Children and Family Services, or DCFS, rules and procedures. DCFS’s rule for inadequate supervision includes 21 factors that investigators should consider when investigating such an allegation, and provides great discretion to investigators to apply those factors. But these factors provide very little guidance for parents to figure out when their actions constitute “inadequate supervision.”

Thus, although the Illinois General Assembly has given the state flexibility under the law to determine whether a person is guilty of child abandonment or whether a child is neglected, it has not provided Illinois parents with many guidelines to know when they can or cannot leave their children unsupervised.

For example, Natasha was “indicated” for inadequate supervision when, in the summer of 2013, she let her children – ages 5, 9 and 11 – play by themselves in a park adjacent to her apartment with their 9-year-old cousin, even though Natasha, along with the mother of the cousin and a friend, were able to see the four children from an apartment window and checked on them every 10 minutes.

Parents deserve to be able to make responsible decisions about when to leave their children home alone. Sometimes a parent has no other choice. Not only should the state only intervene in extreme cases where protection of the child is necessary, but it should provide Illinois parents with guidance so they can be sure they are not violating the law. Relying on factors to be interpreted by a government official provides no guidance to a parent struggling to understand what the law allows her to do.

Extreme cases make bad law. After the Schoo case, many thought the law needed to be stricter and provide harsher penalties. But in the ensuing two decades, the state has gone too far.

Although the Schoo case was horrible, such cases are rare. Meanwhile, thousands of parents like Natasha have to make decisions about when they can leave their children unsupervised. And these cases are in no way comparable to the maltreatment of the Schoo children.

Decisions about whether a child can be left unsupervised are generally best reserved for parents, who know their children better than anyone. The state should amend its laws and rules to safeguard parental choice while still protecting children by intervening only in extreme cases.

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