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Where is the line between teaching children independence and engaging in child endangerment and neglect?

A number of recent news stories have demonstrated that around the country, parents and departments of child welfare are in disagreement about what activities are appropriate for children – and the states are taking steps to enforce seemingly draconian yet undefined rules on parents who leave their children unsupervised for any period of time.  Last summer a South Carolina woman was arrested and her child was taken into state custody when she let her nine-year-old play alone in a park while the mother worked her shift at McDonald’s. Recently parents subscribing to a “free range parenting” philosophy were investigated and found responsible for unsubstantiated neglect after letting their ten and six-year-olds walk home from a park together.  A few months later, the children were picked up a second time and a new investigation was opened.

Not surprisingly many states do not actually have laws to guide parents as to what the state considers appropriate versus neglectful parenting.  Those that do have widely varying requirements.  In California, for example, no child under 6 can be left alone unsupervised in a car, but only if the car is on, the keys are in the ignition, or when there are circumstances that present a risk to the child’s health and safety.  In Hawaii no child under the age of 9 can be left unsupervised in a car for five minutes or longer. States also range dramatically in the age they give as law or guidance on when a child can be left home alone: Colorado recommends children not be left alone before they are 12, Kansas thinks they are ready at 6, and Illinois prohibits by law leaving children home alone until age 14.  There don’t appear to be any rules or regulations  about other independent activities children might engage in, although the cases in Maryland and South Carolina indicate that state agencies and courts might apply the laws relating to leaving children alone in homes and cars to letting children do other activities without supervision.

Massachusetts has no laws directly addressing these questions.  We have no statute stating when a child can stay home alone, when and under what circumstances children can be left alone in cars, and certainly nothing addressing the myriad of other circumstances in which parents may find themselves wondering if they can allow their children some measure of independence without facing criminal charges or a Department of Children and Families investigation.  Case law on these topics is sparse, but gives some outline of what behavior the state does and does not find acceptable.

Case law demonstrates that leaving young children alone in cars constitutes neglect under the Department of Children and Families’ (DCF) regulations.  See Lindsay v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 439 Mass. 789 (2003) (leaving three-year-old alone in car for two hours was neglect); In re Adoption of Kendra, 80 Mass. App. Ct. 1112 (2011) (leaving four-year-old in running car for twenty minutes was neglect).

Massachusetts also has a law criminalizing “Abandonment of an infant under the age of 10” (M.G.L.c. 119, § 39).  The term “abandonment” is not defined in that chapter of the law, nor is it defined in the Department of Children and Families’ regulations. The one reported case applying this law in a criminal case interpreted the term “abandonment” to require more than a brief and temporary absence from the child.  The Appeals Court found that the definition of abandonment requires the willful leaving of a child with no intent to return, and that under the statute addressing the termination of parental rights that definition had been refined to mean being left without any means of support and without a responsible person to maintain and care for the child.  In that case the Appeals Court determined that when a father left his three year old in a car at a rest stop while he went a short distance away to use the bathroom he had not engaged in abandonment.  The court indicated that leaving a child for a brief time would also not be considered endangerment under the child endangerment statute.

Clearly, every potential instance of neglect, endangerment, and abandonment will have to be subjected to a case-by-case analysis because the facts of the case are so relevant to whether a parent acted appropriately.  It seems obvious, even without the guidance of statutes or case law, that young infants cannot be left unattended for any time, and conversely that young teenagers likely can be left alone in cars and homes for some period of time.  But given how much power each social worker at DCF wields in terms of making determinations in the cases she handles, it’s quite possible that families subject to investigation for these practices will receive different instructions on what is and is not permissible parenting for their children. There is therefore a huge gray area that families are asked to navigate blindly, with no guidance from the state, all the while risking investigations that could potentially lead to the loss of custody of their children or criminal charges.

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