My child has been going to day care after school, where she stays until I finish work. She’s 10 years old, pretty responsible, and I do occasionally leave her home alone to run quick errands. Is there any law that says when she is old enough to stay home alone?
As the new school year begins, parents often grapple with the question of when they can leave their children home alone.
“Wisconsin does not set a minimum age at which children may stay at home alone legally,” said attorney Brian Weber, who deals with that question about his 8- and 11-year-old sons.
The legal issue is whether a parent could be considered neglectful for allowing their kids to be home without supervision. Wisconsin law says a child is neglected if the person responsible for the child’s welfare fails for reasons other than poverty to provide necessary care, food, clothing, medical or dental care, or shelter as to seriously endanger the physical health of the child.
A child could be taken out of a home and parents charged with criminal neglect, depending on a number of factors, including actions that “create a substantial and unreasonable risk of death or great bodily harm to another.”
“The court looks at the readiness of a child to be left at home and how seriously it endangers the physical or mental health of a child,” Weber said.
As a practical matter, he recommended two sources to help parents weigh the issue. The first is a babysitting course. Local organizations, including the Red Cross, offer online courses for children ages 11 and older. The same skills used in babysitting apply to staying at home alone.
The other is a web page called “Kids Home Alone” created by the Greater Madison Safe Community Coalition. The page looks at a number of questions parents may ask to determine whether their children are ready mentally, physically, socially and emotionally.
It also is helpful to leave children at home alone for short periods at first to see how they do. “Leave them for an hour and go out to dinner and see how they do. If they call nonstop, you know they are not ready to stay at home alone,” Weber said.
Brian Weber is an attorney at Johns, Flaherty & Collins. For a family lawyer in La Crosse WI, call Brian at 608-784-5678.