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School’s out. Is it ok for my kid to stay home alone?

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Childcare is an issue in the state of Colorado. It can be stressful and difficult to find quality, affordable child care. It is no wonder that many parents look forward to the day when you don’t have to pay for child care. But, how do you know when the time is right to let your child or teenager stay home alone? When is it ok to let your older child watch a younger sibling? These are questions parents frequently ask themselves as school lets out, especially when money is tight. They are also questions that the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Public Awareness Campaign receives at least once a month, either because a parent wants to know the law or a neighbor is concerned about a child in the neighborhood.  

To help parents make the decision about whether or not to let their child stay home alone and help community members know when to call the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline 1-844-CO-4-KIDS (1‑844‑264‑5437), here are some things to consider. 

There is no specific age in Colorado when a child can legally stay home alone. It is your decision. 

The laws of Colorado do not set a specific age after which a child legally can stay home alone. When thinking about leaving children alone, it is important for parents to consider the potential risk involved or themselves and for their children since parents are legally responsible for their children’s welfare until they reach adulthood. Under some circumstances, a parent can be charged with neglect for leaving children unattended. In general, Colorado has accepted the ages of 10 to be alone and 12 to babysit as a guideline for when it might be appropriate for a child to be left alone for short periods of time. This standard is based upon the Colorado Child Labor Law, which deems 12 years as the minimum age for employment, for example, as a babysitter. 

Things to think about when deciding if your child is ready to be more independent:

  • Is your child capable of taking care of and protecting themselves?
  • Is your child mentally capable of recognizing and avoiding danger and making sound decisions?
  • Is your child emotionally ready to be alone? Will they feel confident and secure or feel afraid, lonely or bored?
  • Does your child know what to do and who to call if a problem or emergency arises?
  • Does your child have any special physical, emotional or behavioral problems that make it unwise to leave them alone?

If, upon answering these questions, you feel confident about letting your child stay home alone, the Colorado Department of Human Services highly recommends having your child take the Red Cross – Be a Safe and Successful Babysitter‎ course, offered online and via classroom options for all ages.

Is this an independent kid or child neglect?

As a neighbor or community member, it can be hard to know if a child staying at home alone is independent, or if it is a case of child neglect. In a recent survey of Coloradans, 65 percent said they were hesitant to make the call because they “don’t know enough about the situation and worried that they might be wrong.” But, it is important to remember, families are often like icebergs. Seeing a child staying home alone may just be what you can see above the surface. Your call could help prevent something tragic from occurring in the future. By making the call any time, and every time, you are concerned about the well-being of a child or a teenager you are playing an important role in the prevention of child abuse and neglect. Community members are encouraged to dial the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline 1-844-CO-4-KIDS (1‑844‑264‑5437) and let the professionals determine whether or not a child is being neglected. Even if a child hasn’t experienced abuse or neglect, your call could lead to getting a family a better support network.

Everyone plays a role in strengthening families.  

If you are considering making a call concerning a child staying home alone, you may also want to consider offering to help with child care. Few parents would turn down a free babysitter if they need child care. You may learn that your neighbor has decided that their child is ready to be more independent and that is ok. There are laws in place in Colorado to guide the child welfare professionals’ response and help strengthen families. The issue is not black or white, for good reason. Just last month, Utah became the first state to create a “free-range” parenting law to change the state’s definition of neglect to allow children of “sufficient age and maturity” to engage in independent activities like walking to and from school or staying home alone. Colorado’s laws already allow parents space and flexibility to parent their own children.

Really, no parenting decision is easy. 

Parents need to think carefully about many things before leaving their children alone. And this is important even if you only leave your child alone occasionally. Putting children in situations they can handle can help teach them independence and responsibility. But asking too much too soon can be a frightening and potentially dangerous situation – for both the child and the parent.

Find other FAQ’s about child abuse and neglect in Colorado, learn more about what professionals consider when determining whether a parent or legal guardian is neglecting a child by not providing adequate supervision and the signs of child neglect on the www.CO4Kids.org website. The Colorado Department of Human Services reminds the public to trust your instincts and call the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline 1-844-CO-4-KIDS (1‑844‑264‑5437), available 24 hours a day, every day, to report any concerns about the well-being of a child. Anyone witnessing a child in a life-threatening situation should call 911 immediately. 

Laura Solomon is a social worker and intake administrator at the Colorado Department of Human Services Division of Child Welfare.

 

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