Child Home Alone Laws in California

by Caitlin Donnelly

    One third of United States’ school-aged children are home alone for some part of the week, according to U.S. census data cited by the NYU Child Study Center. The number of "latch-key kids" continues to rise as the strain of the economy forces parents to work long hours and the cost of childcare skyrockets. With no state law guiding them, this predicament leaves many California parents questioning what the appropriate age is to leave their kids home alone.

    National and State Requirements

    There is no federal law in the United States that dictates the age a child may be left home alone. While many state governments have taken it upon themselves to specify an appropriate age, California has no law on record. In the Golden State, it is generally up to the parent’s discretion to decide if her child is mature and ready to be left alone. However, check with your local municipal government, as some cities may have ordinances regarding age limits, notes Latchkey-Kids.com.

    Appropriate Age for “Latchkey Kids”

    Because there is no law stating a specific age a child may be left alone, an appropriate age is left up for debate. States such as Colorado and Delaware "recommend" age 12, while children can legally be left alone as young as age 8 in Maryland and North Carolina, according to Latchkey-Kids.com. California parents should not base their decision solely on age, but also on the maturity level of their child. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Child Welfare Information Gateway suggests considering whether your child can take care of himself, obeys rules, generally makes good decisions and is comfortable being alone. Never leave an infant or small child home alone.

    Preparing Your Child

    It is important to make sure your child knows what to do in the event of an emergency when she is alone. The National Crime Prevention Council suggests setting rules for your child, such as no friends over, no Internet and no answering the door. Practice emergency scenarios and explain when to call 9-1-1. Have your child memorize your address and phone number, and have a list of emergency contact numbers for work, cell phones, trusted neighbors and nearby relatives posted near the phone, should your child feel uncomfortable or need help. Leave your child alone for a trial run, such as a quick trip to the store, before leaving her alone for an extended period of time. Talk about how your child feels being left alone.

    Advice for Parents

    Check in on your child with a phone call while he is alone, or have a trusted neighbor stop by. Keep the amount of alone time to a minimum, if possible. Consider enrolling your child in a supervised after school program, or encourage him to join a sport or club after school. Although there is no law on the age limit, a parent may be charged with neglect should a child be injured while home alone or if the child cannot physically care for himself, such as an infant or toddler.

    About the Author

    Caitlin Donnelly is a former editor at Eagle Newspapers in Syracuse, N.Y. Her work has appeared in "Syracuse Woman Magazine" and several online publications. Donnelly graduated from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University with a bachelor's degree in magazine journalism.

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