Parents in North Carolina face this quandary as their children grow older -- how old can their children be before being allowed to be at home alone? It isn’t only single parents trying to figure this out; two-parent families with both parents working outside the home struggle with this issue, too. When it comes to the safety and well-being of the children, it’s better to be too cautious and have a little information.
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North Carolina state officials don’t have a hard-and-fast age that dictates when any child can be at home alone, although they do have a loose set of guidelines they use as they work on individual cases. These officials try to determine what a child’s parents have set in place to ensure the safety of their children -- they look for evidence that the parents have a trusted neighbor close by who can step in should the child need help. Officials also look at the child’s maturity, her age and how long she will be alone at home before her parents come in. A North Carolina law that makes it illegal to expose children under the age of 8 years is the only age-specific law on the books. In addition, the Fort Bragg military reservation is the only community with specific rules about leaving children home alone. These rules are tied to the ages of the children.
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services agency functions under the North Carolina fire code that says children under the age of 8 must be supervised at home because of the risk of fire. DHHS asks parents and responders about the maturity of children referred for investigations. The agency also looks at the safety of the community and the child’s ability to access emergency services; in other words, if the child can call 911, if necessary. While a child can be left at home alone, she may be considered to be too young to care for her younger brothers and sisters.
Within the legal community, no specific guidelines exist for parents to use as they weigh their options. Because individual children mature at different rates, it may be safer for one family to allow their 10-year-old son to let himself into the house after school while the parents of a 13-year-old can’t do the same thing. Parents also have to take their children’s ability to handle emergencies into account. The biggest question these parents have to look at is whether their children can handle injuries, fire or illness. Once the parents have educated their children on how to contact them, what they can eat for a snack and the importance of staying inside once they are home, the parents need to monitor their children’s ability to follow these rules.
Some North Carolina parents have access to after-school programs for their children. They know their children are being supervised by a YMCA counselor or day-care provider. Other families have relatives close by and they send their children to these family members. North Carolina school districts with enrichment programs for their students allow parents to enroll their children for after-school supervision. Not all working parents have these advantages. Some single parents can only afford to send one child to an after-school program. The other child often ends up going home alone, as a latchkey child.