(The Center Square) – As Illinois law stands today, parents can be charged with neglect if they leave children under the age of 14 home alone – even for a short time. The law is rarely enforced.
State Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, told The Center Square that people want the law changed.
“I have lots of constituents who have reached out to me about this,” Scherer said. “It’s causing a lot of hardship on our working families."
She filed legislation in House Bill 4305 that will lower the home alone age in Illinois to 12.
Scherer expects the bill will pass in the next few weeks.
“People who have talked to me say, ‘I have a 13-year-old and I want to leave them alone for a half an hour between when I have to go to work and when they have to go to school.’ It is very extreme the way the law is written right now,” Scherer said.
Marie Coobes, a mother of two who works as team manager at the Illinois Childcare Resource Service, said 12 is an arbitrary age. Just because a child is 12, or 14, or even 16, that does not mean that they will be OK home alone by themselves, she said.
“There are 12-year-olds who should not be home alone because they can’t be trusted to keep themselves safe,” Coobes told The Center Square. “It’s so individual to the child.”
Coobes said each parent needs to make their own determination, depending on the individual child.
“It really is a gut feeling,” Coobes said. “Does it make you scared to think about leaving that child alone? Can you confidently walk out of the house knowing that the child will respect the boundaries that you set?”
Some children do what you tell them and follow the rules, Coobes said. Other children are more curious.
“When nobody is looking over their shoulders, they are going to explore a little bit,” she said.
Coobes suggests parents talk to their child about trust and what that means, and having trial runs where they leave a child for a short period of time to see how it goes.
Children home by themselves need phone numbers to call. They need to be able to reach somebody responsible if they get lonely or if they are afraid. And they need to have a safe place to go if there is an emergency.
“If there is a fire or if some circumstance happens, there has to be a safe place for them to go,” Coobes said.
Two things that children should not do when no one else is home are answer the door and have friends over. Coobes advises parents to have a short list of trusted people – a grandparent or an older sibling – that the child can let in the home when they are by themselves.
“The child should understand not to open the door for anyone else,” she said.
Allowing children to have friends over when no adult is home is setting the stage for mischief, Coobes said.
“Putting kids with their peers encourages them to do things that they wouldn’t normally do,” Coobes said. “I would not have friends in the home when you are not there.”
As for babysitting younger children, that is a fraught situation, Coobes said. She does not recommend having 11- and 12-year-olds babysitting children under five, particularly if there are three or more children in the home without adults.
“It is a responsibility that I am not sure a 12-year-old is prepared for,” Coobes said. “Some parents aren’t even prepared for that!”