School's out. Is it ok for my kid to stay home alone?
By Laura Solomon
Child care is an issue in the state of Colorado. It's stressful to find quality child care and when you can find it, it is expensive. It is no wonder that many parents look forward to the day when you don't have to pay for child care. But, how do you know when the time is right to let your child or teenager stay home alone? When is it ok to let your older child watch a younger sibling? These are questions parents frequently ask themselves as school lets out, especially when money is tight. They are also questions that the Colorado Child Abuse and Negelct Public Awareness Campaign receives at least once a month, either because a parent wants to know the law or a neighbor is concerned about a child in the neighborhood.
To help parents make the decision about whether or not to let their child stay home alone and help community members know when to call the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline 1-844-CO-4-KIDS (1‑844‑264‑5437), here are some things to consider.
There is not a specific age in Colorado when a child can legally stay home alone. It is your decision.
The laws of Colorado do not set a specific age after which a child legally can stay home alone. When thinking about leaving children alone, whether for a short or long time, it is important for parents to consider the risks involved. There are many potential risks to children that must be considered. There are also risks for parents as well. Parents in all states are legally responsible for their children's welfare until they reach adulthood. Part of caring for children is providing adequate supervision. Under some circumstances, a parent can be charged with neglect for leaving children unattended. In general, Colorado has accepted the ages of 10 to be alone and 12 to babysit as a guideline for when it might be appropriate for a child to be left alone for short periods of time. This standard is based upon the Colorado Child Labor Law, which deems 12 years as the minimum age for employment, for example, as a babysitter.
Things to think about when deciding if your child is ready to be more independent:
When determining your child’s readiness for more independence, it may be helpful to think about the same things that a child protection case worker would when determining child neglect.
- Is your child capable of taking care of and protecting themselves?
- Is your child mentally capable of recognizing and avoiding danger and making sound decisions?
- Is your child emotionally ready to be alone? Will they feel confident and secure or feel afraid, lonely or bored?
- Does your child know what to do and who to call if a problem or emergency arises?
- Does your child have any special physical, emotional or behavioral problems that make it unwise to leave them alone?
If you are feeling like all of these questions are leading you down a path of letting your child stay home alone, the Colorado Department of Human Services highly recommends having your child take the Red Cross - Be a Safe and Successful Babysitter course, offered online and classroom options for all ages. You can also opt to get certified in First Aid and CPR/AED through the Red Cross.
When to make the call. Is this an independent kid or child neglect?
The reality is we know that Coloradans are hesitant to make the call. In a recent survey of Coloradans, 65 percent said they were hesitant to make the call because they "don't know know enough about the situation and worried that they might be wrong." But, it is important to remember, families are often like icebergs. You may only see what is above the surface. Your call could help prevent something tragic from occurring in the future. You never know. By making the call any time, and every time, you are concerned about the well-being of a child or a teenager you are playing an important role in the prevention of child abuse and neglect in Colorado. We encourage community members to dial the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline 1-844-CO-4-KIDS (1‑844‑264‑5437) and let the professionals make the call as to whether or not a child is being abused or neglect. Even if a child hasn't expereinced child abuse or neglect, your call could lead to getting a family a better support network.
Remember, everyone plays a role in strengthening families.
If you are thinking about making the call because a parent in your neighborhood may be neglecting their child, it also never hurts to offer to help with child care. Few parents would turn down a free babysitter if they need child care. But, it is entirely possible that your neighbor has decided that their child is ready to be more independant and that is ok. There are laws in place in Colorado to guide the child welfare professionals response and help strengthen families. The issue is not black or white, for good reason. Just this month, Utah became the first state to create a "free-range" parenting law to change the state's definition of neglect to allow children of "sufficient age and maturity" to engage in independent activities like walking to and from school or staying home alone. Colorado's laws already allow parents space and flexibility to parent their own children.
Essentially, professionals ask three main questions to determine whether a parent or legal guardian is neglecting a child by not providing adequate supervision:
Question #1 - How mature is the child?
- Investigators will measure the child’s maturity level by asking:
- Is the child capable of taking care of and protecting themselves?
- Is the child mentally capable of recognizing and avoiding danger and making sound decisions?
- Is the child emotionally ready to be alone? Will they feel confident and secure or feel afraid, lonely or bored?
- Does the child know what to do and who to call if a problem or emergency arises?
- Does the child have any special physical, emotional or behavioral problems that make it unwise to leave them alone?
Question #2 - Who is responsible for the child?
If parents have not left the child in the care of another, investigators will ask:
- Where are the parents?
- Can the parents get home quickly if needed?
- Can the parents be reached by phone?
- Do the children know where the parents are and how to reach them?
If parents have left someone else in charge, investigators will ask whether that person is mature enough to provide good supervision and to protect the child. They will want to know information about the caretaker that is similar to that requested in Question #1.
Parents should remember that a child who can take care of themselves may not be ready to take care of a younger child. Legally it may be fine to leave a mature 11-year-old alone; but to leave that child in charge of a toddler, preschooler, or kindergartner may be considered child neglect. Younger children often need more care than an 11-year-old can give. And if an emergency comes up, the 11-year-old might not be able to keep everyone safe.
Question #3 - What is the situation?
What is appropriate under some circumstances may be considered child neglect under other circumstances. Investigators will ask:
- When and for how long are the children left alone?
- Have the parents arranged with nearby adults to be available in case a problem arises?
- Is there any family history of child abuse or neglect?
Really, no parenting decision is easy.
As you can see, parents need to think carefully about many things before leaving their children alone. And this is important even if you only leave your child alone occasionally. Putting children in situations they can handle can help teach them independence and responsibility. But asking too much too soon can be a frightening and potentially dangerous situation - for both the child and the parent.
Again, if after reading all of these questions and talking to your child, you don't feel they are ready and still need child care, check out Colorado Shines to find quality child care near you.
Find other FAQ's about child abuse and neglect in Colorado and the signs of child neglect on this website. The Colorado Department of Human Services reminds the public to trust your instincts and call the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline 1-844-CO-4-KIDS (1‑844‑264‑5437), available 24 hours a day, every day, to report any concerns about the well-being of a child. Anyone witnessing a child in a life-threatening situation should call 911 immediately.
Laura Solomon, is a social worker and intake administrator at the Colorado Department of Human Services Division of Child Welfare. She was a caseworker and a supervisor in the field of intake child protection in Colorado for more than 14 years before joining the Department.
Child welfare professionals in the area of intake focus on reviewing allegations of child abuse and neglect to determine if the allegations are founded. Learn more about what happens after you call.