How Old Is Old Enough to Be Home Alone?
Posted September 28, 2007 7:09 p.m. EDT
Updated September 29, 2007 11:05 a.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — When an overnight fire killed four children, ages 3 to 11, who were at home alone in Scotland County, it was, in many people's opinions, a tragedy.
But deciding whether to file charges against the mother who left them home alone is complicated, officials say, even though police, prosecutors and judges often confront that decision.
No charges have been filed in the Scotland case.
"I think it's the most difficult (to make a decision) when children are 10, 11, 12," said Durham County Family Court Judge Marcia Morey.
As a Family Court judge, Morey said she understands the struggle.
Because there is no state law outlining when children can be left home alone, judges and social workers must make decisions on a case-by-case basis.
"We look at the age of the child, the maturity of the child, how long they will be home alone and if they have any care responsibilities," said Denise Boyette with the Johnston County Department of Social Services.
"It's the facts of that individual case and what steps a parent has made to make sure there is adequate contact and supervision to keep those children safe" that influence the decision, Morey said.
For example, prosecutors never considered charges against the parents of 12-year-old Emily Haddock, who was home alone when she was shot and killed during a robbery attempt last week.
They said she was mature enough to stay home alone during the day and that other family members lived nearby.
Morey said discerning criminal neglect within a tragedy is often a tough call.
"I don't think you can ever say 'always' and never say 'never,'" she said.
There is one North Carolina law against leaving children under 8 years old exposed to a fire danger, but it is not specific beyond that.
Fort Bragg is the only North Carolina community WRAL could find with detailed rules about when a child can be left home alone. Under the rules, children under 10 require direct supervision, 11-year-olds can have monitored supervision for up to two hours. At age 12, children can be home alone for up to three hours.
The policy, however, does not specify the penalty for violating the rules.