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Staying Home Alone Article - 1/8/06 Oakland Tribune

At what age can kids be left alone?
Oakland Tribune, Jan 8, 2006 by Rebecca Vesely
 

The case of two San Ramon boys left home alone while their parents partied in Las Vegas raises a question many busy parents face: When are children old enough to care for themselves, and for how long?


Both in the eyes of the California legal system and among child development experts, there are no clear rules. But parents can follow some guidelines based on their children's maturity level and experience handling situations, experts said.
"Common sense plays a big role in when it is OK to leave children for any length of time," said Lynn Yaney, spokeswoman for the agency that handles child welfare in Contra Costa County.


Many child development experts believe parents shouldn't leave children home alone overnight until age 14 or 15, andeven then they should consider teens' experience of being without their parents, such as going to sleepovers or summer camp.
Younger kids aren't ready developmentally to stay home alone overnight, may have trouble being alone during the day and are usually ill-equipped to care for a younger sibling, said Dr. Lane Tanner, associate director of development and behavior in the pediatrics division of Children's Hospital Oakland.


"A general rule of thumb is that kids under age 7 aren't capable of thinking logically and putting cause and effect together," Tanner said. "They are reliant on caregivers to structure their day."


Children ages 7 to 10 aren't generally ready to supervise themselves for an extended period, but in a routine and predictable environment, such as just after school, they can manage, Tanner said. Kids 12 and 13 years old should be judged on a case-by-case basis but should not be left alone overnight.


"Things like preparing meals and using the stove -- there are some very practical dangers here," he said.


Joshua and Jason Calero, ages 10 and 5, were left at home in San Ramon by their father, Jacob Calero, and stepmother, Michelle De La Vega, while the couple went on a five-day trip to Las Vegas on Dec. 30, to celebrate New Year's.


The children were left with frozen dinners, the parents' cell phone number and a gas fireplace lighted for heat. On Saturday a neighbor heard Jason screaming "Help me," from the Caleros' garage and brought the boy to his house until Joshua returned home. The boys spent one night alone before their maternal grandmother, concerned because no one was answering the home phone, called police.


The couple were charged Friday with two felony counts each of child endangerment. They could face up to eight years in prison.


A child age 10 wouldn't react well to a crisis, said Carol Thompson of Child Care Links, an Alameda County group, which is a liaison between government agencies and families that deal with child welfare.


"If a situation arises where the child has to deal with a fire breaking out or is in danger, they are going to react by crying or panic," she said.


At least 3.3 million children ages 6 to 12 regularly spent time alone or with a young sibling, according to a 2003 survey of parents by Child Trends, a nonprofit child welfare research group. On average, children left unsupervised spent nearly 41/2hours per week alone or in the care of a sibling, the report concluded.


Children of higher income families are more likely to be left unsupervised than children of low-income families, especially when very young. Twelve percent of 6- to 12-year-olds in low-income families were in self-care versus 17 percent of those in families with higher incomes, according to Child Trends.


"We feel that children under the age of 12 should never be left alone," Yaney said.
Children regularly left alone or cared for by young siblings are at risk of a variety of problems, such as accidents, injuries, social and behavioral problems and poor academic performance, studies have shown.


One study by a Walnut Creek pediatrician indicated that children left in the care of older yet immature siblings have more self- esteem issues than children left alone because of power struggles and abuse of authority. And children left by their parents for extended periods can have lifelong problems with anxiety, according to other studies, Tanner said.


Unlike some other states, California lacks age limits on when children can be left home alone. Under Maryland law, for instance, children must be supervised at all times until the age of 8, and youngsters must be at least 13 to babysit other children, including siblings. The law doesn't say how long children 8 and older can be left by themselves.
"Because there are no defined age limits in California, it is sort of a parent's call," Thompson said.


A decision to leave children home alone can have tragic results.
In a case that made headlines in 2003, a single mother whose babysitter didn't show up left her two children, ages 9 and 1, alone so she wouldn't miss a night shift working as an assistant manager at a McDonald's in Brooklyn.


The two children died in an apartment fire that was deliberately set. The mother, Kim Brathwaite, was charged with reckless endangerment. The charges were later dropped.

 



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