Last night, one of my neighbor boys came by to ask if he could use my phone. I don’t know his name, but I’ll call him Billy. The boys are, I would guess, upper elementary age. I agreed, but asked, “What’s up?” He said that his sister was supposed to pick him and her son (I’ll call him Joey) up after school, but that she didn’t (they ride the bus home). So he called, but got no answer. As it was 8:00, I asked if they had had dinner. They had not. So I went to McDonald’s, and $14 later, the boys were fed. I asked them what time Billy’s mother would be home from work, and was told late—“11:00 p.m.” late.
When I told the boys I was not comfortable with them being home alone that long/late (especially since they would be sleeping), they said they do it “all the time.” I told them that the “plan” we were going to follow was to try to call Joeys’ mom again after they finished eating, and then if she didn’t answer, we would call Billy’s mother. They agreed to that plan, and this time when Billy called her, she answered. She apparently asked for Joey, who spoke briefly to her, and then said very meekly, “Ok, Mommy.” I know there was discussion about whether they had eaten, because Billy said, “the neighbor” (me).
Shortly thereafter, she showed up, yelled at the boys to “Get in the car!” and then left.
There are a number of observations I want to make here.
- Although I’m not aware of any “magical age” at which DHS says it’s okay for children to be left alone for extended periods of time, these boys might not have been considered old enough. Short periods of time, yes. But here are the problems with last night:
- The boys were left alone from the time they got home from school until 9:00—and would have likely been alone until 11:00 had they not been able to reach the Mom/Sister.
- “Forgetting” to get them is a common occurrence according to them—not a one-time misstep.
- The boys were not fed.
- The boys didn’t have access to a phone in case of an emergency.
- There was no “protocol” for checking in with the boys to make sure that Mom/sister had picked them up as agreed (and again, because this is apparently a somewhat common occurrence, someone needs to be checking in)
- Mom 2/Sister yelled at the kids when she picked them up. But I heard no apology for forgetting them, or that they weren’t fed.
So the question is—Could/should I have reported this to DHS or the police?
Good question. My thought process in not reporting went something like this:
- The boys do not appear to be physically abused or malnourished. They also did not report any abuse or ongoing issues with food.
- Mom had made arrangements, but Mom 2/Sister had “forgotten.” Although the boys said it was a somewhat frequent occurrence, I’m not sure what that means exactly. While most of us would be horrified if we forgot our kids, it does happen, usually when the routine varies. My husband once forgot to pick up our daughter because it was an early out day. He didn’t forget entirely—just forgot to go early.
- What I have seen of the boys tells me they are pretty responsible and independent. Generally speaking, I like to think that parents are the best judge of whether and when their children can be safely left alone. I was babysitting infants and toddlers when I was not much older than these boys, so it’s hard for me to say that they are definitely too young to be left alone.
- I have talked to the boys about what to do in the future if they find themselves in that same situation (e.g., come see me earlier if they haven’t had dinner!). And I will now likely keep a closer eye on things; if I start to see a pattern and practice of leaving them alone (especially now that it’s summer and school is, or will shortly be, out), then I would still first try to speak to the mothers.
- I believe that even if I had reported it, DHS would have either rejected the “complaint,” or perhaps sent it down the “differential response” path. This means the court would not have been involved, but parents would have been offered “services” (though I’m not sure what kind of services would be helpful in this situation). So I would have caused problems and stress for no good reason, and the boys might be hesitant to come to me in the future if they needed help. I did not believe the boys to be in “imminent danger.”
But others might have called. So if you are a parent thinking of leaving your kids alone, consider doing the following:
- Make sure there’s a Plan B that your kids can follow if someone “forgets” to pick them up.
- Check in to make sure your kids are where they are supposed to be, with the individual they are supposed to be with. Don’t assume everything is fine.
- Make sure they have access to a phone in case of an emergency. It would also be a good idea to make sure they know how to get out of the house in case of fire.
- If possible, enlist the help of a neighbor you trust. The person doesn’t have to do anything other than be available in case a problem arises, or the child needs help with something. They can also keep an eye on things if they know the child is home alone. Give that person your telephone number so they can reach you if necessary.
- Make sure there is food available for your child. They don’t have to be able to cook; even a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and fresh fruit will work.
- It’s probably not a good idea to leave them alone past their bedtime, though there may be situations where that would be ok.
- Don’t yell at your child when it’s you who has messed up. J If you forget them, apologize sincerely. And then figure out what you can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. For example, you can put it on your calendar and set an alarm.
Being involved with DHS and/or the courts is almost never an experience you want to have. Follow the steps above to minimize that risk—to yourself and your child.