Illinois might allow parents to leave 12-year-olds home alone

Illinois might allow parents to leave 12-year-olds home alone

Illinois has the strictest latchkey law of any state. A new bill looks to change the minimum age parents can legally leave their children home alone from 14 to 12.

It’s illegal for parents in Illinois leave a child under the age of 14 home alone, but the nation’s strictest standard for giving parents that choice might change. 

House Bill 4305 changes that age from 14 to 12. State Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, introduced the bill in December after multiple families expressed concern. 

“I have lots of constituents who have reached out to me about this,” Scherer said. “It’s causing a lot of hardship on our working families.”

Illinois’ minimum age of 14 is the highest in the nation. There are 39 states that set no minimum age to leave a child home alone, they leave that up to parents. 

“People who have talked to me say, ‘I have a 13-year-old and I want to leave them alone for a half an hour between when I have to go to work and when they have to go to school.’ It is very extreme the way the law is written right now,” Scherer said.

Marie Coobes, team manager at the Illinois Childcare Resource Service, said every child is different, and parents deciding for their child is more appropriate than setting a certain age standard. 

“There are 12-year-olds who should not be home alone because they can’t be trusted to keep themselves safe,” Coobes said, adding “It’s so individual to the child.”

Coobes suggests parents talk to their kids about boundaries, and maybe a trial run where the child is left home for a small amount of time. She recommends not allowing children to answer the door when home alone, unless it’s a trusted person like a family member. 

The bill is currently assigned to the House Judiciary Committee’s criminal subcommittee, but Sherer expects it to pass in the coming weeks.

Illinois’ home alone law has been arbitrarily applied and is vague. State law considers it neglect or abuse when “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.”

The law doesn’t define “an unreasonable period of time,” leaving it up to the interpretation of government employees, opening up potential to abuse the rule.

Wilmette mother Corey Widen knows it all too well. In 2018, she let her 8-year-old daughter, Dorothy, walk their dog, Marshmallow, around the block. A neighbor noticed her walking alone and called the police, who saw no grounds for negligence.

But the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services opened an investigation. After enough scrutiny and uncertainty to leave mother and daughter traumatized, DCFS dropped the case.

Letting a 12-year-old home alone is better than the state deciding no 13-year-old is responsible enough and parents can’t assess their own children’s maturity. But what Illinois should really do is get out of the parent-child relationship, just like 39 other states.

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