Home Alone: Parents must pick the right time

Twice in the past two weeks, local authorities have handled cases in which children 10 or younger have been left alone to care for themselves or even younger children for extended periods.

On July 15, two Augusta parents were charged with deprivation of a minor after an 8-year-old boy wandered to a neighbor's house looking for his parents. The police report said the boy's parents had been gone three hours while he was left alone with a 6-year-old and a 7-month-old.

On Thursday, a Hephzibah woman was arrested and charged with three counts of deprivation of a minor after being accused of leaving three children unattended at Diamond Lakes Park. The woman left a 10-year-old girl, a 5- or 6-year-old boy and a 1-year-old girl at the park at 8 a.m. and told them she'd back after work at 3:30 p.m. An officer found the children unsupervised and without food and water at 11 a.m. They were turned over to the Division of Family and Children Services.

When school is out for the summer, some financially strapped parents leave children alone rather than pay for day camps or child care. Even when school resumes in a few weeks, parents might wonder whether their child is old enough to be at home alone after school or to supervise younger siblings.

There's no simple answer.

According to the National Child Care Information Center, only two states -- Maryland and Illinois -- have laws that set age limits for when children can be left home on their own. State agencies in Georgia and South Carolina offer guidelines and recommend that parents consider factors beyond age, such as a child's maturity and level of responsibility.

The Georgia Division of Family and Children Services' policy states that children 8 and younger should not be left alone. Children 9 to 12 may be left alone for short periods, and children 13 and older can be left alone or in charge of other children.

DFCS evaluates reports of child abuse and determines whether a child-neglect investigation is warranted. Lack of adult supervision is the most common type of neglect investigated by the agency, according to Child Protective Services. If reports are substantiated, the division determines whether it is safe for the child to remain in the home. If not, the agency may petition juvenile court to remove the child.

DFCS provides reports of neglect to local police.

When trying to determine whether any laws have been broken, Richmond County Sheriff's Office Lt. Scott Peebles said police consider factors such as the age and maturity level of the child, the place the child is left, the time of day and length of time left.

"If a child is left to their own devices for 10 hours per day that's a lot different than someone who's gone around the corner for 30 minutes," he said. "We have to use common sense."

If the child's health or well-being was jeopardized, the parents can be charged with first-degree cruelty to children, abandonment of the child, and child endangerment, authorities said.

WITH SCHOOL RESUMING , Rene Hopkins, the coordinator of Safe Kids East Central, one of 22 Safe Kids coalitions in Georgia, said her organization is concerned parents will cut day care costs and allow children to stay at home alone before they're ready.

"But at what other costs?" she said.

Safe Kids recommends not leaving children younger than 12 alone. Children ages 7-10 shouldn't be left alone for longer than 10 or 15 minutes, and no child that age should be left alone overnight.

More than age, maturity level and readiness of the child should be considered, said Ms. Hopkins, a registered nurse.

If your child told you he heard noises while you were out, or had nightmares after a discussion of staying alone, he's not ready to be on his own, Ms. Hopkins said.

Your child also should know how to react in case of a fire, how to answer the phone, and what to do if someone is at the door.

"These are things we need to make sure our child knows before we even consider leaving them home alone," she said.

Children 12-15 are still at risk, Ms. Hopkins said. They should make sure to secure doors once they're inside and keep their keys out of sight.

Leaving an older child in charge of younger siblings may require even more maturity and preparation. Children who are baby-sitting must be able to follow directions and make good decisions using their own initiative. If a sibling rivalry is strong, it's not going to get better if one child is in a position of authority, Ms. Hopkins said.

DEBBIE, a North Augusta resident, has gradually prepared her 12-year-old daughter to stay at home alone.

When her daughter started middle school last fall, Debbie left her on her own while she went to the grocery store. She gradually extended the time she was gone, and her daughter showed she could follow instructions without prodding, such as completing homework. Safety issues were discussed in advance, over a long period.

Before being allowed to baby-sit, the 12-year-old needed to get along with her younger sister, take a baby-sitting safety course and be able to recall certain safety procedures. She has already gained some child-care skills while helping in the church nursery, her mother said.

Now that her daughter has mastered those skills and taken the course at Trinity Hospital of Augusta, she'll be allowed to begin baby-sitting when school starts, her mother said.

Reach Sarah Day Owen at (706) 823-3223 or sarah.owen@augustachronicle.com.

HOME ALONE: WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW

AGE LIMITS

- According to the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, children 8 and younger should not be left alone.

- Children 9 to 12 may be left alone for short periods of time, and children 13 and older can be left alone or in charge of other children.

- The Children's Trust of South Carolina, a state agency charged with preventing child abuse and neglect, also recommends that children younger than 9 never be left alone.

BEING PREPARED

Before being left on their own at home, children should know:

- Their full name

- Address

- Telephone number

- Parent or guardian's full name

- Parent or guardian's work telephone and work address

- How to call 911

- How to secure the house

- Internet safety skills, such as knowing not to give out contact information or let strangers know they are alone at home

- The rules for using the stove or oven, though use should be avoided or kept to a minimum

TIPS FOR LATCH-KEY KIDS

- Don't disclose to visitors or people on the phone that you're home alone.

- Don't label a house key with your address.

- Set up a check-in time or system through which you contact a parent or a neighbor to let someone know you're home.