How old is old enough to stay at home alone?

Published 11:55 pm Friday, June 29, 2012

Thursday’s house fire in which three children, ranging in age from 4 to 14, were left home alone, narrowly escaped injury has left residents questioning, and “How old is ‘old enough’ to be left in charge?”

Law enforcement remains tight-lipped about the circumstances surrounding how the children, who were in the care of 32-year-old Sara Butler Patterson, came to be in the Harmony Community mobile home without adult supervision. Patterson’s mobile home caught fire shortly before 8 a.m. When deputies arrived, it was believed that there were children still trapped inside the home; however, it was later determined that all escaped without serious injury from the fire. When Patterson arrived on the scene, she was taken into custody and charged with two counts of reckless endangerment and chemical endangerment of the child. She remains in the Covington Jail under a $200,000 bond, and the case – specifically how the fire began and Patterson’s suspected drug activity – remains under investigation.

In this case, a 14-year-old child was left “in charge” of the other two children. And while it isn’t immediately clear when Patterson left the home or how long she’d been gone, some would think a 14-year-old is old enough to be a babysitter.

Lisa Patterson, a licensed child counselor (and no relation to the woman involved in Thursday’s incident), said it depends upon the child.

“The major thing that comes to mind is, ‘How responsible is the child on their own? Are they caring for others or loners?’” she asked. “Also what is their incentive to do a good job and be responsible for others and themselves?”

She said it’s ultimately a parent’s decision.

Alabama does not have a minimum age for babysitters; however, as a general rule it is recommended that no one under the age of 12 be left alone or “in charge” of other children, a recommendation by Latch Key Kids, which also suggests that 8-year-olds and older can be left at home for up to several hours – usually after school before a parent gets home from work.

The National SAFEKIDS Campaign recommends that no child under the age of 12 be left at home alone; however, parents and/or guardians should consider a child’s age and maturity level. “For example, if a child is extremely impulsive, it might be best to wait until he or she is older than 12,” the website stated.

There appears to be very few states with specific regulations about the age of a child left at home alone. However, since the number of latch key kids is growing significantly due to two income parents and single parents and guardians, there is a growing movement within state agencies to set guidelines.

Alabama law lists a lack of supervision as a form of child neglect under the law; however, like most states, Alabama doesn’t have hard and fast rules regarding the age at which a child may stay home alone, or the age that a babysitter must be. Many young people as young as 11 baby-sit.

There are very few states in the U.S. with legal minimum ages for children home alone, but many state agencies have published guidelines – including New Hampshire, Illinois, Maryland and Oregon.

Annette Reese, a childcare provider at Tiny Tots, said she thinks that 12 is too young to be a caregiver.

“I think 12 is too young, because what if something happens?” Reese said. “They’re not mature enough to know what to do. For example, take choking. That would scare them to death.

“I would recommend around 14 or 15 as a good age to start,” she said. “They can call someone if something happens.”

As for being a latchkey kid, Reese said leaving a child home alone for short periods of time again goes back to the child’s maturity level.

“Some 12-year-olds are mature enough to stay home,” she said. “If they can use a telephone, know how to get up with someone to call 911, in my opinion, then, it’s OK to leave them at home after school. It really depends on the child’s maturity level. Kids in this day and time are a lot smarter than we were at that age.”