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Judging Parents: When are Unsupervised Children Being Maltreated?

Updated: Oct 14, 2023

Many parents have experienced a situation like this:

You and your child are in a car on a highway. You're driving, but there are no other adults in the car. You desperately need to use the bathroom. You're approaching a rest stop. Your child is content in the back seat. Your trip to the bathroom is going to be quick. It's likely that with their favorite YouTube channel playing on the tablet in their hands, your child won't even notice you're gone. The idea of taking the child out of the car, and then having to navigate a disgusting restroom, where the child will touch every surface, has you considering peeing your pants. You don't really have a choice, though, do you? You stop, take the child with you, and deal with the annoyances. Why?

Is the child REALLY at risk of harm in the car?

Not if the climate is appropriately controlled and they are otherwise unlikely to hurt themselves.

Is someone going to steal the child?

Highly unlikely.

But... if someone sees your child alone in the car, they will surely judge you, or even worse: call the police or child protective services (CPS).

I learned of a similar scenario that occurred a few weeks ago. A parent left their child in the car as they ran into a gas station to pay for fuel, and grab a snack. A bystander, who identified themself as a "mandated reporter", called the authorities. No action was taken against the parent. However, the parent and child were traumatized. The reporter was boasting with pride about having protected the child. But, was the call actually protecting the child? If the bystander was truly concerned for the child's safety, they could have simply asked inside the gas station to make sure the parent was nearby, or offered to keep a watchful eye while the parent finished up. Making a call to the authorities was neither required by law, nor necessary to keep the child safe. IMHO, it was a bad choice.

Parenting is full of choices: easy ones, hard ones, and impossible ones. But even seemingly simple parenting choices can be complicated. Parents choose what to feed their kids, for instance. But, parents also choose when forcing their kids to eat what's good for them is worth the frustration when the food isn't up to the standards of the child's palate.

Parents can, and do, regularly make good decisions for themselves, their children, and their families without any oversight or influence. But many parenting choices, especially those which outsiders bear witness to, are frustrated by concern for judgment. I recall taking a break on a bench at The Bronx Zoo over a decade ago to chat with a friend, while our toddlers entertained each other just out of arms' length. My friend seemed uncomfortable as the kids got more than 10 feet away from us. "What are you worried about?", I remember asking. "They're fine. They're not going anywhere we can't see them." She wasn't worried about the kids getting hurt or lost. She expressed concern for what others would think. And, her discomfort seemed justified when a gray-haired woman passing by rolled her eyes, and made a comment under her breath about our "unruly" children.

While such judgment was uncomfortable, it wasn't particularly threatening to our role as mothers. The woman just wanted to make it known that she thought we, young mothers, made a bad decision. And, as upper middle-class, White, moms (both of whom are attorneys), we weren't really at any risk as a result of this woman's judgment. There is a particular level of judgment, however, which isn't so innocuous: judgment that leads to a call to the police or CPS.

There are more than 4 million reports to CPS every year in the United States. And fewer than 800,000 of those reports are found credible after investigation. That means there are more than 3 million reports to CPS every year that might not have needed to be made. Many of those reports relate to one specific choice parents make: the decision to leave a child unsupervised.

All parents wonder at what age it is ok to leave their child unsupervised, and for how long.

I train thousands of professional reporters of suspected child maltreatment every year, and during these sessions there is usually a lot of discussion around the concept of "inadequate supervision" as a form of child maltreatment.

Generally speaking, inadequate supervision means:

  • Leaving a child unsupervised (depending on length of time and child’s age/maturity),

  • Not protecting a child from safety hazards

  • Not providing adequate caregivers, and/or

  • Engaging in harmful behavior around children.

When I tell professionals that in most parts of the country there is not a specific age at which a child can be left home alone, I usually get challenged. "You're wrong, Dr. Krase. You can't leave children home alone until they're 10 years old." Someone else interjects: "No. The age is 11." Another participant chimes in:"I was told 8".

IN FACT, fewer than 10 states define by law the age at which a child can be left alone. For example, in Maryland and North Carolina, the laws say children can't be left alone until they are at least 8 years old. However, those laws are embedded in each State's Fire Code, and are not directly related to the definition of child maltreatment. In Illinois, the age is 14, but rarely enforced.

Since almost all states do not have an enforceable law that specifies such parameters, parents generally have the right to make a decision about what is best for their child and family, as long as the child is safe and well cared for. For some families, this means that an 8-year-old can safely stay home while their parent goes to the store, or a 14-year-old can watch a younger sibling while their parent goes out to dinner. In other families, this might mean that a particular 16-year-old who can’t quite be trusted shouldn’t be left home alone… at … all.

There are reasons parents leave children alone in less than ideal circumstances, and they are often not related to what many would just consider “bad parenting.” Many inadequate supervision cases that make it to family court involve parental mental illness or substance use disorders. However, there are also cases of parents who leave their children unsupervised when they wish they had another choice. Childcare is expensive, and work schedules can be grueling.

If we, as a society, really want to prevent cases of inadequate supervision we should demand affordable childcare and universal paid sick leave laws. We could invest in community education campaigns that aim to educate parents how to ensure the safety of children who are left alone. We could offer help, before judging a parent's decision as bad.

If you have concerns about a parent's decision to leave a child unattended, don't rush to conclusions. First, determine if the child was harmed, or is at risk of harm; not all unattended children are in danger. Consider the age and maturity of the child. Consider the circumstances in which the child is left unattended. Then, consider the intent of the parent. If the parent is not considering the needs of the child, nor are they guarding the safety of the child, the situation may necessitate CPS intervention. However, if a parent leaves a child home alone at an age or for a duration that you would not feel comfortable doing with your own child, you should stop and consider if your judgment of the parent really relates to concern for the child's safety, or you're just being judgmental If the latter, make the choice to mind your own business.

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For more information on the law in this area, check out:

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2018). Leaving your child home alone. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.

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