Leaving child Home Alone could land parents in jail this holiday season
Illinois’ restrictive and vague laws could mean arrest for parents who leave their kids at home while they run a quick holiday errand.
Any parent who leaves their 13-year-old home alone could find themselves under investigation by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, or even under arrest this Christmas.
This would be bad news for the parents in the 1990 film “Home Alone,” who accidentally left 8-year-old Kevin McAllister behind at their Winnetka home in the flurry of getting a large family out the door for a Christmas trip to Paris. While Illinois law could be interpreted to find that fictional oversight to be criminal, the law is also vague enough to find it perfectly fine.
The 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” has been neglected by their parents.
Under one interpretation, it would be illegal for parents to leave any child age 13 and younger by themselves. However, it is not clear what constitutes “an unreasonable period of time.” Would that be an hour? Would that be closer to the three days young Kevin was left to fend off burglars?
That vagueness means parents can quickly get into trouble, even if they believe their middle school son or daughter is capable of staying home by themselves or if they put their child in a controlled situation where they will learn some independence.
One parent from Wilmette learned letting her daughter walk around the block with the family dog could be a violation of the law. Corey Widen let her 8-year-old daughter, Dorothy, walk Marshmallow down the street by herself. A neighbor noticed the girl was alone and called the police. While the Wilmette Police decided the accusation that Widen neglected her daughter was baseless, DCFS thought otherwise. They opened an investigation into Widen. They eventually found she was innocent.
Natasha Felix of Chicago also discovered a little child independence might not be acceptable to the state. She was charged by DCFS in 2013 for inadequate supervision when she let her three sons – ages 5, 9 and 11 – play at the playground right outside their apartment’s window. A person driving by called DCFS and Felix was charged even though she had been keeping an eye on them out the window. The charge finally was erased from her record two years later.
The law is even more difficult for single and low-income parents to balance. Parents who leave their kids home alone after school while they work have to balance the vagueness of the law with their schedules and income. It targets parents who have to work to feed their kids and can’t afford to send their kids to an after-school day care program.
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 restrictions on the age.
Lawmakers seemed to understand they should make a change, with the Illinois House overwhelmingly passing a bill in the spring that would allow children ages 12 and up to be home alone. The bill died in the Senate.
Parents can lose custody of their kids even before they have a chance to defend themselves in court. A child can be taken from a parent without a warrant when an allegation is made. Then in court, 15 vague factors will be considered while the parents have a chance to defend themselves. At the least, the parents suffer a humiliating experience from having their parenting questioned by the government and temporarily losing custody of their child.
It would be better if lawmakers could save parents the humiliation and let them determine what is best for their child. 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 the state.
Lawmakers should move to make the law more clear and less invasive on a family’s life. The vagueness of the law and its strictness creates unnecessary trouble and embarrassment for good parents just trying to teach their children self-reliance and independence.