At What Age Can a Child Be Left Home Alone?

In the spirit of the holiday season and reminiscing about that beloved Christmas movie that all children fantasize about, I have come up with this foregoing blog post.  No, it's not about giving, or being with family, it's about being left alone.  

Multiple clients and prospective clients have asked me at what age is it appropriate for a child to be left alone at the house.  Usually, the parent is either looking for leverage against the other parent or is making sure they are legally in the right.  While there is no statute or case law that directly states what age may be appropriate, we can look for guidance in the North Carolina General Statute that outlines the fire code along with our own common sense.  That last part can be very scary for some.

What does the fire code say about leaving your child home alone?

North Carolina General Statute section 14-318 states that a parent or legal guardian cannot leave a child under the age of eight (8) locked or confined, unsupervised, in any dwelling, building, etc. as to expose the child to danger by fire.  

To violate the statute is a Class 1 misdemeanor.  There is only 1 class higher than that.

So, I can leave my nine (9) year old home alone then, great!

Let's pump the brakes on that thought for a minute.  Although leaving a nine year old home alone is not a violation of the aforementioned statute, it may have negative implications as it pertains to a custody case.

The reason for that is three fold.  A. you may have a nine year old that has not reached the level of maturity to that of his peers, B. the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services have a deeper evaluation than just the fire code statute, and C. a Family Court Judge may not agree that your child is the type that should be left home alone (that goes back to maturity).

What does the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services have to say and why would I care?

First off, any parent should care what the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) position is on a subject because they are the state regulatory agency for every NC county's Division of Social Services office.  Basically, if DSS determines that a child is in danger they can proceed with a court action through the Child Protective Services program to have a parent's right to their children dictated by the court.  They start this by conducting an in-home assessment.  

While the NCDHHS does factor in NCGS 14-318, they go on to discuss more practical components such as maturity, safety of the neighborhood/community, and access to emergency assistance.  

The main thing to do for parents that are sharing custody is try to be reasonable with your child's mother/father and work to make sure the child is safe because that is the number one priority.  That said, we all know that some parents can be unreasonable and may think leaving a 20 year old unattended is dangerous (depends on the 20 year old), or may think leaving a 5 year old unattended is perfectly fine.  

If you have an unreasonable co-parent, then NCDHHS guidelines are the best authority that exists in North Carolina for determining when it is safe to leave a child home unattended. 

*Nothing in this blog post establishes an attorney-client relationship or should be construed as legal advice.