Originally created 11/27/02

Cases pile up for agency



An Augusta mother whose three children were found at home alone was arrested Tuesday, part of local authorities' reaction to a growing trend.

The case of 25-year-old Tiffany Keishe Smith is nothing new to social workers in Augusta, who are seeing a steady caseload of parents - especially single mothers - who leave their children unsupervised and in dangerous situations.

Police say they found Ms. Smith's three children - ages 3, 5 and 7 - at their Wrightsboro Road home Friday. During the officer's 2 1/2 -hour wait for social workers to arrive, the mother never returned.

After the children were placed in foster care, the mother gave a poor excuse, said Carolyn Beard, the director of the Augusta Department of Family and Children Services.

"The mom's story was that she had to go get something from a friend and didn't want to take the kids," Ms. Beard said. "It's not acceptable. Children that age are too young to be left at home alone."

Her case is not isolated. Consider these situations from Richmond County:

A security guard at an apartment complex heard a 4-year-old girl screaming Sept. 16 and found her home alone.

Paramedics went to a Lumpkin Road apartment Oct. 13 after getting a 911 call from a 9-year-old boy. The boy, alone with his 19-month-old brother, told police his mother was gone and he thought the toddler was sick.

A motorist spotted 4-year-old twin girls wandering Aug. 8 on Deans Bridge Road, a half-mile from home. The mother had asked a neighbor to look after the sisters, but he eventually left them.

Last year, Richmond County investigated 2,315 reports of child maltreatment, 31 percent of them substantiated. Of the cases found to be true, 63 percent involved neglect, said Myra Josey, DFCS social services program director.

How do social workers determine when a child is old enough to be left alone, and what constitutes neglect or cruelty?

Common sense says a child who hasn't reached school age should always be supervised, authorities say. But once they get older, maturity level and the location of the home play a part in the decision.

"We have to always look at a situation in its entirety," Ms. Josey said. "There are some 15- or 16-year-olds that don't need to be left alone because of mental disabilities and some 10-year-olds who would be OK alone."

DFCS guidelines suggest that children ages 8 and younger should be supervised at all times, children ages 9 to 12 can be left alone for short periods of time, and children 13 and older can be left alone and can supervise other children.

But when social workers investigate a complaint about an unsupervised child, they examine the child's maturity level. They will interview the child away from parents.

What would the child do if a stranger came to the door? How would they handle a fire? If they got scared, how would they react?

The location of the home is another issue, Ms. Josey said. How close are the neighbors? How well do they know them? Is there a telephone in the house?

"That makes a big difference if there's no one in the home," Ms. Josey said.

Parents who are unsure whether to leave a child at home should follow the DFCS guidelines. If they still have questions, they can call the Augusta office at 721-3000.

"We have to use some common sense. We are not going to leave a 6- or 7-year-old at home alone," Ms. Beard said. "Young children will get in trouble. I don't think it's a good idea before 12."

AGE GUIDELINES

The Augusta Department of Family and Children Services uses the following guidelines for determining the level of neglect that exists when children are alone without adult supervision. These are guidelines, not law:

8 AND YOUNGER: Should not be left alone

9-12: Can be left alone for brief periods of time (less than two hours), depending on level of maturity

13 AND OLDER: Can be left alone and can act as a baby sitter for up to 12 hours if they are at an adequate level of maturity

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 828-3851 or greg.rickabaugh@augustachronicle.com.