Parents could get more say about leaving preteens home alone after Illinois House passes bill

Parents could get more say about leaving preteens home alone after Illinois House passes bill

Illinois parents can face neglect charges for leaving a 13-year-old home alone. The Illinois House just took a step toward relaxing the nation’s strictest law on unattended children.

Illinois can deem a parent neglectful for choosing to leave their teenager home alone, but a bill passed by the Illinois House would drop the minimum age for leaving a child unattended to 12 from 14.

House Bill 2334 cleared the Illinois House of Representatives near-unanimously April 4 in a 111-1 vote.

Currently, Illinois law claims neglect 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.”

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.

Illinois’ law is the strictest of its kind in the nation. Only a handful of other states have a minimum age for leaving children home alone. At least 30 states have no minimum age for when a child can be left home alone.

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

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

This disproportionally affects single-parent, lower-income households, where paying for child care after school is cost-prohibitive.

The law 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 factors are only considered by a court or government official after the child has been taken away from their parent, which can be done without a warrant.

And while lowering the minimum age to 12 for minors who may be left home alone would be a commonsense change, HB 2334 also suffers from some of the same vagueness of the current law.

For instance, one provision intended to allow parents greater discretion over whether their child may play outside without supervision is nebulous. According to that provision, parents are not guilty of neglect if the child’s “basic needs are met” and if he or she “is of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm.” But lacking any guidance for how to determine what should indicate “sufficient age and maturity” or whether their “basic needs” are met, the measure still invites overreach by DCFS.

To offer Illinois families protection against overreach, lawmakers must take a holistic approach toward reform and minimize unnecessary investigations altogether. Currently, even in cases without charges, having the government take custody of your child and being accused of neglect is traumatic. Proving to the government that you have not neglected your child can be intrusive and humiliating.

Common sense tells us most 12- and 13-year-olds are perfectly capable of staying home alone. But that’s no guarantee that an overzealous police officer or state 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. Parents should not have to be concerned about the government taking their child into custody because the parent judged their child capable of being home alone after school. Parents can best decide their child’s ability to be left unsupervised, not the state government.

HB 2334 now goes to the Illinois Senate, where lawmakers in the upper chamber may send the bill to the governor’s desk. Allowing parents greater autonomy to determine what’s best for their preteens would be a sensible first step toward curbing DCFS abuses. But lawmakers should not stop there. Creating greater oversight of DCFS is what must follow.

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