How old do my kids need to be before I can leave them home alone?

We are often asked, at what age can a child be left home alone under North Carolina law? What about leaving multiple children home alone?

It may be surprising to learn that North Carolina law does not establish a threshold  age for leaving a child home unattended. In fact, there is no law addressing the topic specifically at all. Having said that, two laws are often referenced in the discussion – NCGS § 14-316.1 (Contributing to delinquency and neglect by parents and others) and NCGS  § 14-318 (Exposing children to fire).

NCGS § 14-316.1 states, “Any person who is at least 16 years old who knowingly or willfully causes, encourages, or aids any juvenile within the jurisdiction of the court to be in a place or condition, or to commit an act whereby the juvenile could be adjudicated delinquent, undisciplined, abused, or neglected as defined by G.S. 7B-101 and G.S. 7B-1501 shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.” Under N.C. Gen.Stat. § 7B–101, a neglected juvenile is a “juvenile who does not receive proper care, supervision, or discipline from the juvenile’s parent, guardian, custodian, or caretaker; or who has been abandoned; or who is not provided necessary medical care[.]” This statute unfortunately doesn’t provide a bright-line rule as to when leaving a child alone might constitute neglect. The determination ultimately hinges on whether the circumstances constitute “proper” care or supervision.

The second statute that arises in the discussion of leaving children alone is NCGS § 14-318. This law states, “If any person shall leave any child under the age of eight years locked or otherwise confined in any dwelling, building or enclosure, and go away from such dwelling, building or enclosure without leaving some person of the age of discretion in charge of the same, so as to expose the child to danger by fire, the person so offending shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.” While this statute on its face doesn’t seem to prohibit simply leaving a child alone (presumably unconfined), it is actually used by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services as as a guideline when the Department of Social Services investigates reports of neglect.  See http://www2.ncdhhs.gov/contacts/faqs.htm.

The bottom line is that there is no law that clearly sets out the age at which a child can be left alone. As mentioned above, the decision to leave a child younger than eight years old home alone would be scrutinized should the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services become involved. Beyond that, the totality of the circumstances should be considered when deciding whether or not to leave a child alone: the maturity level of the child, the length of time the child will be alone, the safety of the neighborhood and availability of neighbors in case of emergency, the child’s ability to contact a parent or police. There may be disparity in beliefs and opinions as to what is reasonable – and some children are more mature than others.  And determining that a child is mature enough to stay home alone him/herself does not necessarily mean that the child is mature enough to care for younger siblings. Ultimately, the decision must be made on a case by case basis, but remember that if a child is left alone and something happens, the parent is accountable.