The following question was submitted to John Roska, an attorney/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "The Law Q&A," runs in the Champaign News Gazette.
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.
Many people think there is a simple answer to this question, but there is not. State law suggests an answer in some specific situations, but it doesn’t have one rule that applies to every child. The only real answer to your question is that “it depends.”
Federal and Illinois law mostly leave parents and guardians free to care for their children as they want. In certain situations, though, our criminal and child welfare laws could punish you for abandoning or neglecting your child. But even those laws leave the police and DCFS (Illinois Department of Children and Family Services) a lot of choice in deciding what to do.
Two criminal laws specifically deal with kids who are left alone. 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 that the child is not with someone who is at least 14 years old, or that the child is out of that person’s sight. Child endangerment is a Class A misdemeanor (possible 1 year in jail and $1,000 fine).
There is also a DCFS rule that says licensed day care providers can't leave children under 18 in cars by themselves.
The Illinois Criminal Code also makes child abandonment a Class 4 felony, punishable by 1 to 3 years in prison. If you’ve already been guilty of child abandonment in the past, a second offense is a Class 3 felony. The law says child abandonment is knowingly leaving a child under the age of 13 alone without a responsible person over the age of 14 for a period of 24 hours or more while ignoring that child’s mental or physical health, safety, or well-being.
The law lists 20 factors the court will look at to decide if a child was abandoned with no care for that child’s mental or physical health, safety, or well-being, such as:
- The child’s age and special needs
- Whether they were left entirely alone
- Whether they had an emergency number to call
- Whether the parent or guardian informed another person that the child would 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.” The court will look at the same factors from above to see if a child was neglected.
Although these laws say nothing about older kids, you could still be guilty of child abandonment if you leave children who are at least 14 years old by themselves. The longer they're alone, and the more alone they are, the more likely it is that you will face criminal charges for child abandonment.