Were you ready to be home alone at 13? That’d be illegal in Illinois
In Illinois, it is illegal for parents to leave children under the age of 14 alone for “an unreasonable period of time.” The state’s law is the strictest in the nation — but the way the law affects families can be complicated.
“It's so vague,” Sarah Font, an associate professor of sociology at Penn State, told St. Louis on the Air. “No one is going to have a concrete definition of what reasonable or unreasonable length of time is.”
What is reasonable can be a deeply subjective determination. The different rates at which children develop, and their individual needs, can make it difficult to arrive at a simple definition.
“Young children … are at higher risk of things like accidental injuries — they may cause accidents themselves by using the stove or other sorts of things,” Font added. “So there's good reason to have supervision as a core component of neglect statutes, but the problem we run into is that, developmentally, children have a range of capabilities and knowledge.”
If the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services determines a parent has neglected or abused their child, the parent could temporarily lose custody without a warrant at an officer’s discretion. Spokesperson Heather Tarczan said that the agency handles reports of neglect on a case-by-case basis — and that “for us to remove a child, it is a very severe case.”
When the agency receives calls to its hotline about abuse and neglect, they're either “indicated” — referred for further action — or dismissed. “If safety is an issue, we will work with a state attorney to determine a number of factors,” Tarczan said. “Was the minor left home alone for an extended amount of time in reasonable/unreasonable circumstances? With food or without? With a household of small children to manage?”
The department indicated 5,185 allegations of inadequate supervision between January 2022 and March 2023. Of those, 2,434 cases involved children left alone at home, outside or within the community, while 448 involved kids left alone in a vehicle. Another 653 cases involved children left in the care of an inadequate caregiver.
In 2022, the Illinois House unanimously passed a bill to lower the age for children to stay home from 14 to 12, but it ultimately stalled in the Senate. It remains to be seen whether lawmakers will pass the proposal in the 2023 session.
Stephen Hupp, a Southern Illinois University Edwardsville child psychology professor, encouraged parents and guardians to give children gradual bits of independence to prepare them for being on their own for a period of time.
“Let them do more chores around the house, have them prepare their own snacks, have them order their own meals at restaurants, have them do the checkout order at the grocery store,” he said. “Gauge how well they're picking up those independent skills, including other ones around the house, and use that gauge to determine if they're ready to be home alone.”
Font added: “Talk early and often about, you know, who do they call in case of an emergency? What do they do in case of a fire? All of this emergency planning just to make sure that they are prepared in the event that they need to be alone for whatever period of time.”
Hear more of Font and Hupp’s reflections on Illinois’ child neglect law in this episode of St. Louis on the Air. Find it on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.