Children love playing in parks, especially during the summer. But the demands of the world mean that sometimes parents have busy schedules and it isn’t always easy to bring their children to the nearby park or playground. Some parents wonder if they can let their children walk to the park and play unsupervised. Decades ago, it was not uncommon for children to gallivant unsupervised across neighborhoods.

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Unfortunately, there has been a spate of incidents in which parents faced charges for letting their children walk or play unsupervised. In August 2018 in Wilmette, IL, Corey Widen had the authorities called on her when someone saw her 8-year old daughter walking the dog outside their house. While the local authorities didn’t press charges, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services opened up a case to see if the incident constituted neglect. Other parents have faced even harsher circumstances for letting their kids play unsupervised in a variety of situations.

Is There a Minimum Age That I Can Leave My Child at Home?

There is no universal standard in the US. Some states have a minimum age that children can be left alone. Illinois’ minimum age is 14, which some consider the harshest in the country but that may change. A bill passed the house on April 2019 to reduce the age to 12, but it’s still being considered in the Senate. Maryland designates 8 years-old as the minimum age children can be left alone, while the law in Oregon mandates age 10. Many states don’t have a designated age but have laws that consider inadequate supervision of children as neglect. However, Jeffrey Schwab of Liberty Justice Center notes, “But that’s no guarantee that an overzealous police officer or government official won’t take that child into custody, requiring the government to make that determination.”

Other states are going in the other direction with free-range parenting, or giving children more freedom to “be a kid,” with less supervision. Utah passed a free-range parenting law in 2018 that “redefines the state's definition of ‘neglect’ so that kids can participate in some unsupervised activities without their parents being charged.” South Carolina is considering its own free-range laws as well. Some states have laws specifically targeting leaving kids in hot cars.

Mark A. Momjian, attorney at Momjian Anderer, LLC, sees a philosophical dispute on parenting styles: free-range v. helicopter parenting, a style of parenting where parents are extremely involved in their children’s lives. Free-range parents believe in encouraging independence in their children while helicopter parents are fearful of the harm their children may face, citing tragedies. However, scholars suggest that crime rates have gone down since the 1990s, suggesting that some helicopter parents’ extreme fears may be mildly misguided.

How Do You Make a Judgment Call for States Without Guidelines on Age?

The US Child Welfare Information Gateway suggests that “many States offer nonbinding guidelines for parents that can assist them in determining when it’s appropriate for them to leave their child home alone.” Parents should judge the maturity of their children, their ability to cross streets, call for help or 911 in an emergency, etc.

However, Schwab describes these guidelines as vague and notes that they do “not define how much time is an ‘unreasonable period of time’ or what constitutes a disregard for health, safety or welfare.” Moreover, Schwab points out: “This law disproportionately affects single-parent, lower-income households, where paying for childcare after school is cost-prohibitive. The law essentially targets parents who have no other choice but to have their children stay home alone after school while they are at work.”

Momjian explains that context is critical as well as to what constitutes neglect. Are the children familiar with the park? How long are they playing there? There’s a big difference between a child spending 30-minutes in a park and a child being left alone for several days while the parents are on vacation. Moreover, not all children develop at the same pace, he says. Some 10 year-olds are very mature while there are 13 year-olds that should not be left alone at home.

What Can Happen If the Authorities Are Called on My Family for Unsupervised Children?

In some cases, parents have been charged and have had their children removed from their care by the state. “Having to justify to the government that you have not neglected your child can be humiliating and intrusive, “Schwab explains. “This process is also traumatic to the child. Being taken into custody could lead the child to believe that he or she has done something wrong. It may tell the child that the parents are somehow parenting poorly, even if the parents are not at fault. It can signal to the child that his or her independence is a bad thing.” When parents are faced with these situations, they should consider getting legal counsel to fight the charges and get their children back into their custody.

What Impact Does This Issue Have on Child Custody Disputes?

In child custody disputes between parents, Momjian frequently encounters the issue, or interplay, of free-range parenting and helicopter parenting: “Judges are forced to choose between parenting styles. They have a challenging decision. Both parenting choices can benefit a child; it’s not a binary choice.” But he notes it can be risky “to argue child’s to right to roam” in the courtroom.

Free-range parents can be seen as neglecting their children while helicopter parents can be seen as coddling their children and teaching them dependence instead of independence. This debate is becoming more prevalent in family law cases for divorce and custody battles. It is definitely advisable to get an attorney to assist in all child custody disputes.

So for parents considering leaving their children unsupervised, they should learn the laws in their state and county while also taking into consideration the capability of their children to take care of themselves in limited situations as well as the potential risk of someone calling the authorities.