Leaving an 8th grader ‘Home Alone’ could land parents in jail

Leaving an 8th grader ‘Home Alone’ could land parents in jail

A vague and restrictive state law could mean the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services comes knocking if parents leave their 13-year-old home alone.

Could Illinois parents who leave their eighth grader at home alone, or allow them to be unsupervised at the local park, find themselves under investigation by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, or even under arrest?

That would have been bad news for the parents in the 1990 film “Home Alone.” They accidentally left 8-year-old Kevin McAllister behind at their Winnetka home, in a frantic rush to get out the door for the family Christmas trip to Paris.

While that holiday comedy was fiction, the legal threat to Illinois parents is real.

State law currently 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” has been neglected.

Vague language such as this is ripe for broad interpretation that opens the door to regulatory abuse. Under one interpretation, it is illegal for parents to leave any child age 13 and younger by themselves – whether at home, at the park or walking the dog around the block.

It is also unclear what constitutes “an unreasonable period of time” – among other uncertainties with the law. Would that be an hour? Or would that be closer to the three days young Kevin was left to fend off burglars?

For Wilmette mother Corey Widen, such a nightmare scenario with DCFS became a reality after letting her daughter walk the family dog in 2018. Eight-year-old Dorothy was walking Marshmallow around the block by herself when a neighbor noticed and called police.

Wilmette Police determined the negligence accusation was baseless, but that wasn’t enough for DCFS. The state agency opened an investigation into Widen, putting the family under a microscope and throwing them into nerve-wracking uncertainty – all for simply letting Dorothy walk the dog on her own.

Eventually, DCFS found Widen was innocent and dropped the case.

Illinois’ law is the strictest in the nation. The highest age any other state stipulates for a child to be left alone is 12. Thirty other states have no such age restrictions.

Chicago mother Natasha Felix also experienced in 2013 the overzealous enforcement of Illinois’ child neglect laws. She let her three sons – ages 5, 9 and 11 – run around the playground right outside their apartment window. A passerby called DCFS and Felix was charged for inadequate supervision – even though she was keeping a watchful eye on her children through the window.

It took two years until the charge was finally erased from her record.

To make matters worse, parents can temporarily lose custody of their child before they even have the chance to defend themselves in court against negligence accusations. A child can even be temporarily taken away from a parent without a warrant when an allegation is made.

Later, 15 vague factors – from the duration of time the child was left unsupervised to the weather – are considered while the parents defend themselves against the allegations. At the least, the parents suffer a frightening and humiliating experience in having their parenting questioned and possibly even losing custody of their child temporarily.

The weight of this law falls disproportionately on single parents and low-income households. Parents who leave their kids home alone after school out of necessity – often living paycheck to paycheck – while juggling irregular work hours can easily become victims of the vague and arbitrary restrictions.

Lawmakers in Springfield have recognized the need for change, but no concrete reform has succeeded. In 2019, the Illinois House unanimously passed a bill lowering the age restriction to 12 from 14. The measure never received a vote in the Senate.

As children run to the neighborhood sledding hill or off to build a snowman in the park this holiday season, lawmakers should once again move to make this law more clear and less invasive on a family’s life.

Most 13-year-olds can responsibly stay home alone and watch over younger siblings for an extended period of time. Parents best know their child’s maturity and abilities, not an officer or case worker from DCFS.

Teaching self-reliance or understanding a child’s capabilities shouldn’t be mistaken for negligence. A system that allows a single call from a passerby to embroil parents in a months-long struggle that threatens their family and their good name is one in dire need of reform.

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