Home alone: Unattended 13-year-old? Police can arrest the parents in Illinois

Jeffrey Schwab

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

Jeffrey Schwab
December 19, 2018

Home alone: Unattended 13-year-old? Police can arrest the parents in Illinois

Illinois’ law mandating a minimum age for leaving children home alone is the most restrictive in the nation. That should change.

McAllisters be warned: In Illinois, parents who leave a child home alone may be guilty of neglect.

But under Illinois law, that doesn’t only apply to leaving an 8-year-old in the attic while vacationing in Paris, as in John Hughes’ 1990 Christmas classic, “Home Alone.” Leaving a child as old as 13 home alone as parents make last-minute Christmas purchases can be illegal in Illinois. Or not. It’s vague.

That’s because Illinois law states “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.

Corey Widen became the subject of a recent investigation after allowing her 8-year-old daughter to take her dog for a lap around the block without supervision. Responding to an anonymous call, Wilmette police visited Widen’s residence in August. Local authorities concluded she’d done nothing wrong, but state officials determined the event may have amounted to neglect. And the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, or DCFS, opened an investigation into whether Widen had been guilty of parental neglect.

Or take Natasha Felix, who in July 2013 allowed her three sons – aged 11, 9 and 5 – to play at a local park next door to their apartment. Felix had been watching her children from their apartment window, but a concerned passerby contacted DCFS, and the agency found the Chicago mom at fault for “inadequate supervision.”

This law disproportionally affects single-parent, lower-income households, where paying for child care after school is cost-prohibitive. The law essentially targets parents who have no other choice but to have their children stay home alone after school while they are at work.

It’s the strictest law of its kind in the nation. Only a handful of other states have a minimum age for leaving children home alone. For example, three states list 12 as the minimum age for leaving children home alone, while three states set the minimum age at 8. Kansas lists the minimum age at 6. At least 30 states have no minimum age for when a child can be left home alone.

It is also vague. The law does not define how much time is an “unreasonable period of time” or what constitutes disregard for health, safety or welfare.

It does provide an incomplete list of 15 factors for a court to determine neglect. It fails to provide guidance to a parent trying to decide when they can or can’t leave their 13-year-old without supervision.

Those 15 factors are only considered by a court or government official after the child has been taken into custody away from his or her parent, which can be done without a warrant. Even if no neglect is found, having the government take away your child for a time and being accused of neglecting your child is traumatic. Having to justify to the government that you have not neglected your child can be humiliating and intrusive.

This process is also traumatic to the child. Being taken into custody could lead the child to believe that he or she has done something wrong. It may tell the child that the parents are somehow parenting poorly, even if the parents are not at fault. It can signal to the child that his or her independence is a bad thing.

Common sense tells us most 13-year-olds are perfectly capable of staying home alone after school while their parents are at work. But that’s no guarantee that an overzealous police officer or government official won’t take that child into custody, requiring the government to make that determination.

Parents make decisions about whether to leave their children alone based on their values, their needs and their child’s ability and maturity. Hardworking single parents should not have to be concerned about the government taking their child into custody because they leave them home alone after school. Parents are the best people to determine their child’s ability to be left unsupervised, not the state government.

Illinois lawmakers should act to revise the law to make clear what is and what is not considered neglect, and to provide assurance to parents that leaving their responsible children home alone after school will not result in the state taking those kids into custody.

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