Are the kids ready to stay home alone? What parents need to know

Posted at 4:33 PM, May 23, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-23 21:50:51-04

KENT COUNTY, Mich. -- At some point, all parents will have to decide if they are prepared to leave their children home alone. But, at what age? And, how will you know when they're ready?

No Law In Michigan

Two states (Illinois and Maryland) have laws regarding a minimum age that a child can be left alone. In Michigan, there's no law to dictate a certain age, but the "recommendation" from Child Protective Services is ten years old.

"To develop a statute to say, a hard and fast rule about an age of a child, and that's what we go to every time, may not be reasonable and certainly wouldn't fit every scenario we would run into," explained Colin Parks, Child Protective Services Program Manager. "Here in Michigan, we have the ability to assign a complaint, if a child is ten or younger. It doesn't mean that we have to."

Parks said roughly 160,000 to 170,000 complaints come in each year. Along with age, other criteria is evaluated before deciding if further investigation is warranted.

"We would certainly ask about the age of the child. We would also ask, 'how long is the child going to be alone? What is the home environment like? Is the child able to make a phone call and take care of themselves, if need be? Is the parent gone for 15 minutes? Or are they gone all day at work?'"

In serious cases, parents could be held liable for neglect, or improper supervision; for example, if they fail to supply the child's basic needs, or leave the child in a dangerous situation.

"Unfortunately, I've seen some tragic cases in my time," said Parks. "Things can happen quickly and kids sometimes make bad choices and sometimes unsafe choices...What happens if there's a fire? What happens if somebody comes to the door they don't know?

Parks said comfort level and the child's capacity must be factored into the decision to leave them on their own. Will they be watching a younger sibling? Will you be leaving them at night? Parks said those factors should also be considered.

He said it boils down to "whether you can make sure the child is aware of how to respond to danger, and the child's got the capacity and willingness to keep themselves safe."

What are other parents doing?

When it was time to make the decision with her oldest son Jack, Kelly Braman decided to chat with other parents to figure out what worked for them.

"It was a little scary to think, we're going go drive away and leave them at home," she said. "We just kind of talked amongst parents and had a feel for what is everyone else doing?"

Braman decided the magic number for Jack was ten.

"He was ready," she explained. "And with cell phones, we were literally right down the road."

Braman delayed the decision with her second son Charlie, who she first left alone at age 11.

"My youngest, totally different child," she said.

Deciding if your kids are ready

If you feel your kids are up to the task of being left alone, Jennifer Hoekstra, an Injury Prevention Specialist with Spectrum Health has some more information for you to consider.

"From stranger danger to internet safety to kitchen safety, even what happens if they do go outdoors and they fall?" she told FOX 17 News. "It's something you really need to think through, really well... There are a lot of different safety features and different measures that need to be taken, when kids are thinking about staying home alone."

Hoekstra said to consider these areas before deciding whether to leave your kids alone:

*Will they have access to a cellphone or landline?

Hoekstra said with so many homes forgoing the traditional landline phones, it's important to remember that kids will need access to a phone, in case of an emergency. "Do they know who to call, or how to call them?"

Along these lines, Hoekstra said it's important kids know critical information, like their address and parents' full names. Have they memorized this information? Or is it typed out somewhere where they can easily find it?

*Do they know their surroundings?

Hoekstra explained "Who else is home in the neighborhood? Who are you comfortable with them going to in the neighborhood, if there's issues?"

*Make a plan

Will it be OK for your child to go outside while you're gone? Hoekstra said its best to make a plan and set boundaries, so they know what to do and what you are OK with them doing. "It's really important that you just spell it all out."

*Internet safety

Will the kids be allowed to go online in your absence? This brings up another area of concern for parents.

"The freedom kids have when they're home alone can be a little bit scary," said Hoekstra. "How well-monitored is your home internet? Your computer? Your phone? Do we know where our kids are visiting? Do we know what sites they're on?"

*Kitchen safety

This is a big one. Hoekstra said it's best to establish rules about what kids can do in the kitchen, and what they can't. For example, no cooking or using the stove. "Make sure they know what to do, in case of a fire, if the smoke alarm goes off... if the carbon monoxide alarm goes off."

Some other things to consider:

*Locking doors/windows
*Putting up medications and vitamins, or relocating them to a different location than normal

Hoekstra said it may be best to do a "trial run" and don't be afraid to check in... over and over again.

"How did they do? How did they respond? Were they nervous when you came home? That's a good indication of whether or not they're ready to be home alone, for any longer periods of time," she said. "It's all about planning and the more you can plan, the more you can prepare your child and the more you can practice, the better off you'll be and the more confident you'll be, leaving your kids home alone."

Knowing your child

Braman found that she was able to increase the time she left her boys alone, as they got older. Charlie is now 13, and in the seventh grade. Jack is now 17 and a senior in high school.

"I think the biggest thing is, you know your child best," said Braman. "We want to give them a chance to be responsible, so I think the biggest thing is allowing your child to gain some independence, but it's still under your roof and your guidelines so I think it's best to let them spread their wings a little bit, but definitely each age and each child is different."

For more information and resources about leaving kids home alone, click here.

To see the complete interview with Spectrum's Injury Prevention Specialist, watch the video below: