Our view: In wake of fire, when is it OK to leave a child home alone?

Big icon (for website articles).jpg

Mitchell is mourning the loss of a 6-year-old girl.

When the news of a house fire broke late last week, we all hoped only possessions were lost and not a life.

We’ve heard it so often from fire victims when they say their possessions can be replaced, though nothing compares to losing a daughter, friend or family member forever.

One of the sad facts about the fire last week is that no adult was around. The girl’s mother admitted she left the children home alone and that decision cost her child’s life.

Authorities have said there may be charges to the person responsible for leaving the kids home alone. Aside from the girl who died, there also were a 7-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy home when the fire broke out.


South Dakota child abuse and neglect laws say, among other things, that a parent or guardian can be charged if they fail or refuse “to provide proper or necessary subsistence, supervision, education, medical care, or any other care necessary for the child's health, guidance, or well-being.”

And that’s why while now’s a tough and uncomfortable time to consider the question, it’s an important time for all parents to ask it.

At what age is it acceptable to leave your child home alone?

All parents eventually have to make a choice when it’s OK to leave their child by themselves. According to the federally funded Child Welfare Information Gateway, there is no agreed-upon age when a child can stay home alone safely. There also are no requirements in juvenile or state code that specify when is legally accepted.

Child Welfare Information Gateway says three states have laws regarding a minimum age for leaving a child home alone: Illinois, 14 years old; Maryland, 8; and Oregon, 10.

That puts the decision on each and every parent in South Dakota and for most of the United States.

If you’re a parent, you need to be honest with yourself and make a justifiable decision. You can’t hope that your child is mature enough to handle being home alone — you need to know that he or she is.

Other questions that experts suggest parents use are:


  • Does your child obey rules and make good decisions?

  • How does your child respond to unfamiliar or stressful situations?

  • Does your child feel comfortable or fearful about being home alone?

Once a parent decides to leave their child alone, another difficult decision is the length of time you’re gone. We hope all parents are teaching their children how and when to use emergency services to call 911.
Each child and situation are different, and it’s horribly sad that a child's fatality right here in Mitchell is what causes us to consider such a question.

But we as parents can’t make decisions like these at random. They’re a matter of life and death.

What To Read Next
Get Local