This post was updated on 9-24-14 to reflect information received from Pam Orren at Hennepin County on DHS Child Maltreatment Screening Guidelines, which include practice guidelines for leaving children unsupervised. Thanks Pam! New additions to this post are underlined. —Heidi
I decided to write about Minnesota policy on leaving children home alone, without adult supervision, based on the numerous articles I’ve read over the summer about lack of supervision and child welfare intervention.
What makes this topic tricky is that like nearly every other state in the U.S., Minnesota does not have an explicit law pertaining to the specific age at which children can be left home alone. Illinois sets this age at 14, Maryland at 8, and Oregon at 10. For the most part though, cities, counties, and states tend to look at a variety of factors, including age, when determining whether a specific child can be left home alone, unsupervised.
As you read this post, please keep in mind that this post is intended only to provide information, not to advise or provide any kind of guidance.
A State-Supervised, County-Administered System Means County-Specific Policies
Minnesota has a state-supervised, county-administered child welfare system. The Minnesota legislature passes laws, the Governor of Minnesota signs them (or vetoes them), and the Minnesota Department of Human Services establishes general rules, policies, and guidelines based on these laws and best practices. Each county may then develop these rules and policies further so that they fit within the context of each county.
For example, while Minnesota law lays out generally what is required in independent living plans for older youth in foster care (Minn. Stat. 260C.212, Subd. 1(c)(11)), Minnesota DHS provides training and best practices for counties, and in turn each county develops agency-specific rules and policies that allow workers to consider the unique needs of each youth in their caseload as well as available resources within their county.
If Each County is Unique, How Do I Know When I Can Leave My Kid(s) Home Alone?
While Minnesota statute includes ‘lack of age-appropriate supervision’ as a form of neglect, it does not—as stated earlier—specify the age at which a child can be left unsupervised:
A parent, legal guardian, or caretaker who willfully deprives a child of necessary food, clothing, shelter, health care, or supervision appropriate to the child’s age, when the parent, guardian, or caretaker is reasonably able to make the necessary provisions and the deprivation harms or is likely to substantially harm the child’s physical, mental, or emotional health is guilty of neglect of a child and may be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than one year or to payment of a fine of not more than $3,000, or both. (Source: Minn. Stat. 609.378, Subd. 1 (a)(1))
County-Specific Policies, Based on DHS Screening Guidelines
Each county will define ‘lack of age-appropriate supervision’ differently, but generally based on the DHS Child Maltreatment Screening Guidelines. If you have questions related to age-appropriate supervision, contact your county social services agency and ask to talk to someone about this.
For example, Dakota County has developed its own policies pertaining to lack of age-appropriate supervision. Their policy, like Hennepin County’s policy, is taken nearly word-for-word from the DHS Screening Guidelines. The guidelines pertaining to lack of supervision can be found on page 17 under letter I, “Failure to Provide Necessary Supervision or Child Care Arrangements.” Differences between Dakota County’s policy and the DHS Screening Guidelines are highlighted below.
First and foremost, Dakota County guidelines state that whether they decide to investigate or assess a report concerning lack of supervision depends on a variety of factors, including the child’s maturity level, the child’s reaction to being left home alone or caring for other children, whether a responsible adult can be reached and if the child has the means to reach the adult (phone, phone number, etc.), and the kinds of activities in which the child is engaged (using a stove, for example). These factors are outlined in the DHS Screening Guidelines. The guidelines also consider various safety features of the home, such as the existence of fire detectors.
Dakota County does lay out (in consideration of the aforementioned factors) the age at which children can be left home alone, and how many hours are appropriate for a child to be left home alone based on the child’s age. They state that reports will be investigated when they involve:
- children age 7 and younger left alone for any period of time
- children age 8–9 who are alone for more than 2 hours
- children age 10–13 alone for more than 12 hours
- children age 14–17 who are unsupervised while parents are absent for more than 24 hours (the guidelines state that “these reports will be screened, considering adequate adult back-up supervision”)
The guidelines do state that kids ages 11-14 may babysit younger children, provided that the caregiver is meant to return later that day and the children know this. They also state that kids ages 15 and older can babysit younger children for more than 24 hours.
The difference between this policy and the DHS Screening Guidelines is that the guidelines do not require screening in reports under these conditions; rather, they state that reports may be screened in. The DHS Screening Guidelines also have slightly different age ranges and number of hours allowed for both being left alone unsupervised and being allowed to babysit. For example, the DHS Screening guidelines place 8- to 10-year-olds in the same category, and specify the number of hours at which a report may be screened in for lack of supervision to more than 3 hours, rather than more than 2.
Other Resources Available
Child Care Aware, an agency in Minnesota that helps families across the state find quality child care, states that counties in Minnesota tend to recommend that children younger than 12 not be left home alone. Additionally, most child care centers that offer school-age care do so up to age 12. Child Care Aware also provides a Home Alone Checklist for parents to use to determine whether their children are physically and emotionally ready to be left home alone for any period of time.
The University of Minnesota Extension website has a webpage on this topic, where they focus on a child’s physical and emotional readiness for being left home alone.
Finally, at the national level, the Child Welfare Information Gateway has a factsheet from 2013 providing guidance on leaving your child home alone.
What are some special considerations one might have for children and youth in foster care? If you work in a county child welfare agency, how do you advise foster, adoptive, and birth parents in making this decision regarding the older youth in their care?