Can I Leave My Children Alone at Home After School?

Can I Leave My Children Alone at Home After School?
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Last updated: June 2013

The following question was submitted to John Roska, an attorney/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "Q&A: The Law," runs in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Illinois Edition) and the Champaign News Gazette.

Question

At what age can children be left by themselves? My kids sometimes get home from school before I do, and I want to know if I can get in any kind of trouble if they’re at home by themselves.

Answer

Many people think there is a simple answer to this question, but there is not. State law suggests an answer in some situations, but doesn’t lay down an absolute rule. The only real answer to your question is, “it depends.”

Federal and Illinois law pretty much leave parents and guardians free to care for their children as they see fit. In certain situations, though, our criminal and child welfare laws permit the state to intervene. But even those laws leave the police and DCFS (the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services) a lot of leeway in deciding what to do.

Two criminal laws specifically deal with unattended kids. One says that leaving a child “6 years of age or younger unattended in a motor vehicle for more than 10 minutes” may be child endangerment. “Unattended” means not accompanied by someone at least 14 years old, or out of that person’s sight. This offense is a Class A misdemeanor (possible 1 year in jail and $1,000 fine).

There is also a DCFS rule that says that licensed day care providers can't leave children under 18 in vehicles unattended.

The Illinois Criminal Code also makes “child abandonment” a Class 4 felony, punishable by 1 to 3 years in prison. It’s child abandonment, the law says, to knowingly leave a child:

  • age 10-13 alone for 24 hours or more
  • age 7-10 alone for 8 hours or more
  • age 0-7 alone for 2 hours or more
  • under age 18 with physical or mental special needs alone for 2 hours or more

The law lists 20 factors to consider, like the child’s age and special needs, whether they were left entirely alone, whether they had an emergency number to call, and whether the parent or guardian informed another person that the child will be alone. 

This criminal law of child abandonment is similar to—but not exactly like—state child welfare laws that define child neglect. Under the Juvenile Court Act, it’s child neglect to leave a minor under 14 years of age “without supervision for an unreasonable period of time without regard for the mental or physical health, safety, or welfare of that minor.” Many of the factors from the Criminal Code are supposed to be taken into consideration when deciding whether a child is really neglected.

Although these laws say nothing about older kids, it doesn't mean nothing will happen if you leave minors 14 years old—or older—by themselves. The longer they're alone, and the more alone they're left, the more likely it is that somebody will intervene.

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