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When Can You Leave Your Kids Home Alone? Here Are the Laws in Every State


By Maressa Brown, Working Mother

It’s not as straightforward as you would think.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, an entire generation of children were known as “latchkey kids,” called as such because, entrusted with their own set of keys, they would regularly return from school and remain home alone until parents returned from work. These days, two-parent households where both parents work full-time make up 46 percent of the population, compared to 31 percent in 1970. There is also "evidence that American children are safer than ever," according to a study from the University of California, Irvine. Yet, the concept of leaving children home alone has become truly controversial.

National headlines blare cases of mothers being arrested for leaving children of various ages unsupervised. In December 2018, a mother named Taylor Cumings was arrested for neglect of a dependent after leaving her 4- and 7-year-old sons on their own while she went to work. In October 2018, Danielle Lena Pearson was arrested after she left her three children—aged between six months and 4 years—inside the house by themselves for more than two hours. And back in 2016, a mom named Susan Terrillion was arrested for leaving her 8- and 9-year-old children alone at a vacation rental home while she ran out for 45 minutes to pick up food.

While each of these cases spurs its own unique set of questions, the fact that many state laws are unclear or nonexistent may contribute to parents’ and guardians’ confusion around the matter. While the National SAFEKIDS Campaign recommends that no child under the age of 12 be left at home alone, age-specific regulations vary from state to state. Making matters even hazier at times: “Only about three states in the nation have laws that dictate exact age limits under which children should never be left home unsupervised,” explains Liza Esqueda, a lawyer in private practice in Michigan. “In most states, the decision is left to the parents and guardians who are expected to make an informed evaluation of their specific circumstances before reaching their decision.”

Laws vary for a few different reasons, Esqueda says. “First of all, each jurisdiction is best suited to decide what laws are best for their community,” she notes. “Federally speaking, parenting has historically been ruled as a ‘basic fundamental right.’ This means parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit with limited interference. Court interference usually only occurs in situations where a child is potentially in harm's way. In the case of children being left home alone, a court would usually interfere under the principle of investigating possible neglect.”

Disparities also exist because children mature and develop at varying rates, Esqueda explains. “It is nearly impossible for a court to pinpoint an exact age of mental maturity, which is why many rely on guidelines instead,” she says. “Unless given cause for concern, the courts will default to the discretion of those who know the child best: the parents.”

The three states currently with laws regarding a minimum age for leaving a child unsupervised at home are Illinois, Oregon and Maryland, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Child Welfare Information Gateway. Here are those laws and the 47 other states’ guidelines/recommendations (in alphabetical order by state) on leaving your child home alone.


Alabama

The state has not set a minimum age for children being left home alone or for their babysitters. There’s also no specification about leaving kids home alone in Alabama’s child neglect law, which is defined as “negligent treatment or maltreatment of a child, including the failure to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical treatment or supervision.”


Alaska

State child abuse and neglect reporting laws don't specify an age at which it is acceptable to leave a child home alone. According to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services: “There are no consistent community standards that describe when and under what circumstances children may be left alone or in the care of other children. It is up to the parents to decide when it is safe and appropriate to do so. Each child’s maturity level, experience and environment is different and poses individual pros and cons that a parent must consider when making a decision.”


Arizona

The Arizona Department of Child Safety states that Arizona's statutes (laws) do not designate an age when a child can be left alone. “A parent is responsible for the decisions he or she makes about their children being left alone,” the site explains. “The law does require, however, that the Arizona Department of Economic Security, Department of Child Safety (DCS) investigate reports of neglect which include failure to provide supervision that places a child at unreasonable risk of harm. Leaving children alone is included in the category of supervision.” They explain that “DCS will take a report when a child, who is not capable of caring for him or herself or other children, is left alone. When calls come into DCS, specific questions are asked to help determine if there is a problem for the child. These may include: Does the child know how to reach the parent? Does the child know how to get emergency help? Is there a neighbor to go to? Is someone checking in on the child?”


Arkansas

Arkansas does not have a legal limit on the age at which a child can be left home alone. Some public schools have rules about what age they’ll allow a kid to get off the bus without an adult present, and for many, that age is 9 and up, according to the University of Arkansas. Additionally, there are no regulations about leaving children in charge of siblings or others; however, it is not advised that an infant or toddler be left in the care of a sibling under the age of 13.


California

No age is specified by California law, but the state offers a checklist of questions for parents to go through before determining if their child is ready.


Colorado

Colorado has a guideline around the age at which it might be appropriate for a child to be left alone for short periods of time, and that’s 12.


Connecticut

No specific law or guideline is on the books in Connecticut, but the state’s Department of Children and Families notes that “experts believe a child should be at least 12 before he is left alone, and at least 15 before he can care for a younger brother or sister. These are the minimum ages. Not every child is ready then.”


Delaware

According to the Delaware Division of Family Services, “While there is no law in Delaware regulating an appropriate age for a child to be left home alone, the DFS will accept for investigation any report of a child under the age of 12 being left alone.”


Florida

The state doesn’t have a law or guideline, but the Florida Department of Children and Families cites the National SAFE Kids recommendation of 12 and offers a checklist of questions.


Georgia

According to the Georgia Department of Human Services, “While there are no State laws regarding the supervision of children, DFCS has [Lack of Supervision] guidelines which we follow. The State guidelines are as follows: Children 8 years or younger should not be left alone. Children between the ages of 9 years and 12 years, based on level of maturity, may be left alone for brief (less than two hours) periods of time; and, children 13 years and older, who are at an adequate level of maturity, may be left alone and may perform the role of babysitter, as authorized by the parent, for up to 12 hours.”


Hawaii

No definitive law or guideline exists in Hawaii; however, the state cites the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that adults supervise children until about the age of 11 or 12.


Idaho

Idaho lacks a specific law, guideline or mention of the issue on government websites.


Illinois

One of the three states to have a law on the books, Illinois’ law is considered the strictest. The Land of Lincoln defines a “neglected or abused minor [as] 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.”


Indiana

Indiana has no specific law or guideline. The organization Prevent Child Abuse Indiana states, “There is no right answer for every child. There is no magic age when a child suddenly becomes responsible and mature,” but they offer “ways to evaluate your child’s capabilities in order to make a more informed decision.”


Iowa

Iowa has no law or guideline. The state’s Department of Human Services elaborates, “Iowa law does not define an age that is appropriate for a child to be left alone. Each situation is unique.”


Kansas

In Kansas, there is no clear legal definition as to what constitutes an unsupervised child, according to the Kansas Department for Children and Family. However, they offer the following guidance on their website: “Young children from 0-6 years should not be left alone for even short periods of time. Children 6-9 years should be left for only short periods, depending on their level of maturity ... Children 10 and above probably can be left for somewhat longer periods ...”

Kentucky There is no law or guideline in Kentucky. According to WeHaveKids.com, the state’s Child Protective Services has stated that if you leave a child under the age of 11 you may be investigated for child neglect.

Louisiana The state doesn’t have a law or guideline on a minimum age at which a child can be left home alone. “However, if a child is left alone and there is an incident, courts will typically assess the situation based on the following factors: The child’s maturity level; the safety of the child and his or her surroundings; how long the child was left alone; and the parents’ concern for the child’s overall welfare, and the steps taken to ensure their safety and well-being,” explains Taetrece Harrison, Esq., a family lawyer in New Orleans.


Maine

Maine does not specify an age at which a child can be left home alone, leaving the choice up to parents’ and guardians’ discretion.


Maryland

One of the three states to have a law on the books, Maryland requires that no child be left alone under any circumstances if the child is under the age of 8. It does say that a 13-year-old may babysit a child under the age of 8. A person who violates this law is guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction is subject to a fine not exceeding $500 and/or imprisonment not exceeding 30 days.


Massachusetts

Massachusetts doesn't set a specific age at which a child can be left home alone. In the state, such issues are decided on a case-by-case basis.


Michigan

In Michigan, there is no legal age that a child can be left home alone, according to the Child Protection Law. It is determined on a case-by-case basis, but the state explains that as a general rule, a child 10 years old and younger is not responsible enough to be left home alone. A child over the age of 10 and under the age of 12 will be evaluated, but the case may not always be assigned for a CPS investigation.


Minnesota

State law does not specify an age at which a child can be left home alone or under the care of another child, leaving it up to individual counties to come up with their own guidelines. As a general rule of thumb, Child Care Aware, an agency in Minnesota that helps families across the state find quality child care, states that counties in Minnesota tend to recommend that children younger than 12 not be left home alone.

Some counties have more specific guidelines. For example, Dakota County Child Protection “will assign a social worker to look into the safety of a child if the rules below are not followed for children: Under the age of 8 are never left alone for any period of time; ages 8-10 may be left alone for less than three hours; ages 11-13 may be left alone for less than 12 hours; ages 14-15 may be left alone for less than 24 hours; ages 16-17 may be left alone for longer if there is a plan in place about how to respond to an emergency.” They also note that “children under age 11 should not provide child care to other children. For children age 11 and older who are providing child care, the same limits apply to them based on their age as described above. For example, a 12-year-old who is babysitting still cannot be left alone more than 12 hours.”


Mississippi

There is no set law or guideline for Mississippi parents. According to the Mississippi Department of Child Protective Services, the appropriate age at which a child can be left alone “depends on each individual child’s maturity.”


Missouri

According to the Missouri Department of Social Services, statutes do not provide a legal age restriction. That said, they note that the Children’s Division Abuse/Neglect Hotline takes reports of a child under age 8 left alone, with a face-to-face safety check held within three hours.


Montana

There is no set law or guideline in Montana, which leaves the decision up to parental discretion. The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services states that, “There is no magic age when children develop the maturity and good sense they need to stay home alone. Mature children in a neighborhood with several adult friends nearby may be all right alone for a few hours. For younger children, one hour may be too long. YOU need to decide if the time alone is too much, based on your child and your situation.”


Nebraska

Nebraska has no law that states a specific age. That said, guidelines suggest the state believes children over 7 might be old enough, and children over 11 can supervise younger children. The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services states, “Each situation must be evaluated on a case by case basis considering a number of factors. These are the guidelines that Children and Family Services use to help parents decide what is appropriate. Preschool age children (age 6 or under) should never be left alone … The Department generally considers children under the age of 11 to be unable to supervise children under the age of 6.”


Nevada

Nevada has no set guideline or law. According to The Las Vegas Review-Journal, state law leaves the decision up to the parents’ discretion, and the mindset or maturity of the child is taken into consideration, as is the home being fit for a child (that is, clean, stocked with food, and air-conditioned or heated).


New Hampshire

The state doesn’t have a law or guideline regarding the minimum age at which a child can be left home alone, leaving it up to parents’ discretion. The Portsmouth Regional Hospital states, “It's not a good idea to leave kids younger than 10 years old home alone.”


New Jersey

In New Jersey, the law does not prescribe a certain age at which a child may be left alone, according to the New Jersey Department of Children and Families. The state believes, “Some children may be capable of being alone for short periods of time (to enable their parent to go to the local market, convenience store, etc.), but should not be alone for long periods of time.” If the State Central Registry (SCR) “receives a report which alleges that a child is home alone at present, the screener will gather information from the reporter to assess whether the child is at risk in the absence of immediate adult supervision, asking questions like, ‘How does the caller know the child is alone?’ and ‘How long has the child been alone?’”


New Mexico

The state doesn’t have their own law or guidelines, leaving it up to each city or county to decide. For instance, in Albuquerque the minimum age for a child to be left alone is 11.


New York

The state of New York has no law or guideline, leaving it up to the parents’/guardians’ discretion and encouraging them to “make intelligent, reasoned decisions regarding these matters.” The Office of Child and Family services notes, “Some children are responsible, intelligent and independent enough to be left alone at 12 or 13 years of age. Likewise, there are some teenagers who are too irresponsible or who have special needs that limit their ability to be safe if they are left alone.”


North Carolina

While North Carolina has no set law or guideline, the state's fire code G.S. 14-318 explains that if you leave a child under the age of 8 alone without supervision, this is a fire hazard and you will be found guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.


North Dakota

North Dakota does not have a set law, but guidelines from ParentsLead.org—a collaboration among the ND Department of Human Services, ND Department of Transportation, and ND University System—state that “children who are 9 years old should NOT be left unsupervised for periods greater than two hours during the daytime. Children who are 10-11 years old … may be left alone for longer periods of time. However, caution is advised in leaving a child unsupervised during sleeping hours."


Ohio

The Ohio Children’s Trust Fund site explains, “Ohio state statutes do not set a specific age after which a child can legally stay home alone. However, you may want to check to see if there are any guidelines in the city or county in which you live.”


Oklahoma

The Oklahoma Department of Human Services site notes, “There is no law or policy in Oklahoma for how old a child has to be in order to be left alone.” But they offer the following guidelines for parents and guardians: “Infants and children under 6 years of age should never be left alone without adult supervision; Generally, grade school children who demonstrate the ability to be responsible and mature may be left alone one or two hours during the day with access to a responsible adult; Grade school children should never be left to care for younger children; Middle school children who demonstrate the ability to care for themselves without help may be left alone for up to four hours during the day and evening; Middle school children may care for one or two younger children if there is constant access to a responsible adult.”


Oregon

Oregon does not have a law specifically stating the exact age when children can be left home alone. But Oregon's child neglect laws state that a child should be 10 or older. The Clackamas County website explains, “Child neglect in the second degree is defined by a person having custody of a child under 10 years of age and, with criminal negligence, leaves the child unattended at any place for such period of time as may be likely to endanger the health or welfare of such child.”


Pennsylvania

There is no set law or guideline regarding the minimum age at which a child can be left home alone in Pennsylvania. Local family attorneys cite recommendations from various organizations that children 10 to 12 years of age might be old enough, adding, "It is ultimately up to the parents to decide whether they think their child is mature enough to stay home alone.”


Rhode Island

Although in 2016, Rhode Island lawmakers proposed “legislation to ban kids under 10 from being home alone and older kids from being home alone at night,” there is currently no law or guideline. The state leaves this decision up to parents and guardians.


South Carolina

There is no set law regarding the specific age at which a child can be left home alone in South Carolina, however, a guideline published by the Children’s Trust of South Carolina states, “A child younger than 9 years old should not be left home alone, even for a short period of time. At approximately 10 years old, a child who is responsible may be left for 30 minutes, but no longer than one hour. During this time, the child should be able to keep in contact with a parent.”


South Dakota

There is no set law or guideline regarding the minimum age at which a child can be left home alone in South Dakota. But the South Dakota Safety Council advises, “Don't expect children under the age of 10 to be able to take care of younger siblings and don't leave children younger than age six in the care of older siblings.”


Tennessee

Tennessee’s State Court site notes, “There is no legal age for children to stay at home alone. Parents are advised to use their best judgment, keeping the child's maturity level and safety issues in mind. Younger children have a greater need for supervision and care than older children. Obviously, young children under age 10 should not be left without supervision at any time. In most cases, older teenage children may be left alone for short periods of time.”


Texas

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services site explains, “Texas law doesn't say what age is old enough for a child to stay at home alone. However, adequate supervision is critical to keeping kids safe. An adult caregiver is accountable for the child's care and inadequate supervision can be a type of neglect (neglectful supervision).” They ask parents to consider a variety of factors, such as a child’s emotional maturity and hazards and risks in the neighborhood, when deciding whether or not to leave a child home alone.


Utah

The state of Utah has no law or guideline regarding the minimum age at which a child can be left home alone. The University of Utah site explains, “In the state of Utah, there is no age limit. There is no law about when you can keep your child home alone.” They offer the following recommendation to Utah parents and guardians: “Children under the age of 7 may not be left alone for any period of time, children 8 to 10 years may be left alone for about one and a half hours and only during the daylight or evening hours. Children 11 to 12 may be left alone for up to three hours during the day, but not late at night. Children ages 13 to 15 may be left unsupervised, but not overnight. Children who are 16 or 17 may be left unsupervised and, in some cases, up to two nights.”


Vermont

The state of Vermont has no law or guideline regarding the minimum age at which a child can be left home alone. The Vermont Department for Children and Families states, “There is no universally accepted age when all children can stay home alone safely. Caregivers must consider a child’s physical, mental, developmental and emotional maturity and needs, and their willingness and comfort with being alone. Caregivers need to be sure children have the skills and maturity to handle unsupervised situations safely. Caregivers may consider leaving a child unsupervised once they have reached the developmental maturity of 11 years of age and older. “


Virginia

The Virginia Department of Social Services site explains, “Virginia state statutes do not set a specific age after which a child legally can stay alone. Age alone is not a very good indicator of a child's maturity level. Some very mature 10-year-olds may be ready for self care while some 15-year-olds may not be ready due to emotional problems or behavioral difficulties.” They note that “in determining whether a child is capable of being left alone and whether a parent is providing adequate supervision in latchkey situations, child protective services (CPS) will assess several areas,“ such as the “child’s level of maturity,” “accessibility of those responsible for the child,” and “the situation.”


Washington

According to the Washington Department of Social and Human Services, there are no laws or rules about the best age to leave a child home alone. They do note that, “in general, children under the age of 10 should be not be left on their own, and babies and younger children should not be left alone even for a few minutes.”


West Virginia

A West Virginia Children’s guidebook explains, “West Virginia law does not set a specific age at which a child can legally stay alone. In fact, age alone is not a very good indicator of a child’s maturity level.” They explain that “in determining whether a child is capable of being left alone and whether a parent is providing adequate supervision in latchkey situations, Child Protective Services (CPS) will assess several areas” like “a child’s level of maturity” and “child’s mental capability of recognizing and avoiding danger and making sound decisions.”


Wisconsin

There is no law or guideline in Wisconsin regarding the best age to leave a child home alone, however various state and city agencies seem to believe 12 is an acceptable age. The City of Madison Fire Department explains, “There is no magical age when children develop the maturity and good sense they need to stay alone. Some children display these abilities around age 12, or even sooner; others do so when they’re older. There are signs that show your child may be ready. For example, if your child can get ready for school on time, do homework with little assistance, and talk to you about his or her feelings, he or she may be ready to stay home alone.”


Wyoming

The state doesn’t have a law or guideline regarding the minimum age at which a child can be left home alone, leaving it up to parents’ or guardians’ discretion.


The Bottom-Line:

Given how nebulous (or, in some cases, downright nonexistent) the guidelines are in most states, parents who are concerned should follow recommendations and guidelines from their local courts and implement these into their own decision process, Esqueda advises. “This is a great resource for parents to turn to,” she shares. “This will also provide the added peace of mind that they have done everything the court will require them to do in case their decision was ever brought into question.” If you’re having trouble tracking that information down, “the most direct way to get information is to call up the CPS local agency and ask them directly for guidance,” she says.

Beyond that, she recommends parents having frank, open discussions with their children, elaborating, “Doing things like regularly asking ‘what if’ questions will help a child develop problem-solving skills and will give parents insight as to whether their child is able to ‘think on their feet’ in emergency situations.”

Role-playing is another great tool for parents. Not only will this help the child think through scenarios, but it can also serve as a resource for kids to fall back on if they are ever faced with the same situation.

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