In New Jersey, no law specifies an age at which a child can be left alone. Every child and family situation is different. Some 10-year-olds are more mature than 13-year-olds. Parents know their children best and if they are mature enough to be left alone or with siblings. They need to decide this in the best interest of their children. Unfortunately, that does not always happen and can leave a parent facing an allegation of child abuse or neglect.
For example, a single parent may not have anyone to watch the child if they need to do something meaningful, such as go to a job interview. They believe their 11-year-old can stay by themselves for an hour or two, or a family does not have the financial resources to pay a babysitter. Whatever the situation, parents risk accidents happening while they are gone from home and potential neglect accusations. A custody fight might ensue if the noncustodial parent learns that children are left home alone.
So while the decision to leave children alone is left to the parents, it must be made with common sense and a confident understanding of a child’s abilities. Neglect and abuse allegations are not to be taken lightly. Neither is the decision to leave a child home alone.
The New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP) and other experts offer the following guidelines for parents when deciding if their child can be left home unsupervised.
A baby, toddler, or young child should not be left at home alone. Even if nothing tragic occurs, anyone could report you to the DCPP for neglect. Do not take any chances.
Can the child phone you or call 911 if they are scared or something happens? Can they safely get themselves something to eat or drink and put themselves to bed? Do they know enough to lock the doors and not leave the house? If a child cannot handle or understand safety instructions, do not leave them alone.
Consider your child’s ability to reason and make sound judgment calls, such as not lighting matches or playing with dangerous objects around the home. If you do not trust your child’s judgment, it is best to hire a babysitter.
Child’s Health and Development
Ask yourself if the child is well enough to be left alone or whether an illness or disability requires adult help. Also, children with developmental delays or intellectual disabilities may never reach the point of being left alone.
Amount of Time Left Alone
A parent must carefully and truthfully think about whether it is reasonable to expect a child to fend for themselves for a specific timeframe. For example, a 30-minute visit with the next-door neighbor may be a reasonable amount of time to leave a 10-year-old. However, it is unreasonable to think this same 10-year-old should be left alone all day to get their meals, baths, and other needs.
How Often the Child Is Left Alone
If an 11-year-old is used to coming home after school and is alone until you are home from work at 5:30 p.m., they may be able to handle more extended periods alone. Many parents take “baby steps”, which means they leave their responsible child home alone for longer periods as they see the child can handle them.
Many children are afraid to be left alone or are fearful of the dark, even older children. Do not add to their trauma by leaving them home alone or at night.
Number of Children
Some parents believe their older children can supervise their younger children, even if the older children are under 13 years old. While that may be the case if the older children are mature and capable, there should never be more than one or two younger children to supervise. Too many children can create too much risk.
A parent should never leave a child alone who cannot easily contact them, a relative, or a neighbor if needed. Children left alone should have the means to contact you, the police, or a neighbor by either a cellphone or working home phone. They should have the contact information near the phone and the ability to dial. Children who do not know to call 911 in an emergency should not be left alone.
Ability to Escape in an Emergency
A child who does not know what to do in an emergency, such as a fire, should not be left alone. They must know whom to call, how to unlock the doors or windows to leave, and where to go once they are out. Many families practice fire escape plans.
What Constitutes Child Neglect?
Every state’s child protection agency has its own definitions of child neglect. Under New Jersey law, a parent can be found guilty of neglecting a child by not providing a minimum degree of care.
In New Jersey, you can leave your child unattended; it will not cause you to go to jail in most cases. Leaving your child home alone becomes a problem and potentially a crime when a child is left alone under dangerous conditions. For example, there is usually no problem if a child is left alone after school for an hour or two but has food, heat, and access to a phone. However, if the child is left alone for hours without access to food in a home without heat, there could be legal consequences.
In addition, leaving a child home for too long could also be considered neglect. A couple of hours is usually acceptable, while a couple of days is not.
While New Jersey has no law regarding the age parents can leave their child home alone, the DCPP can and will become involved if someone reports that the child was abused, neglected, or otherwise put at risk of harm while the parent was gone. The law requires that each case be thoroughly investigated. It is advisable to consult with a DCPP lawyer to understand your rights and options.
Moorestown DCPP Lawyers at the Law Offices of Theodore J. Baker Can Help You if You Have Been Accused of Child Neglect
An allegation of child neglect may arise when a child is left home alone. If you have been accused of child neglect, call our Moorestown DCPP lawyers at the Law Offices of Theodore J. Baker as soon as possible. Call us at 856-795-9400 or complete our online form to schedule an initial consultation. Located in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, we serve clients throughout South Jersey, including Haddonfield, Marlton, Medford, Moorestown, Mount Laurel, and Voorhees.