Alone and unattended: At what age is it safe to leave a child alone in public?

Alone and unattended: At what age is it safe to leave a child alone in public?

August 12th, 2014 by Lynda Edwards in Life Entertainment

Colleen and Steve Levin, far left and far right, watch Evan Miller, second from left, and Corbin Levin at the Warner Park Spray and Play.

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.


Here are some tips to help parents determine when their child is old enough to be left alone.

• Make sure your child can recite his first and last name, address, parent's cellphone number and the name of a trustworthy relative or neighbor.

• Parents tell their children not to speak to strangers. Ask your child what a stranger looks like. If he answers, "A monster" or a "crazy/dirty/drunk" person, you have some lessons to teach before the child goes to a park alone. Make sure a child knows a stranger is anyone you have not introduced him to as your friend or a safe person to go to for help.

• Ask your child to identify a policeman on the street in different uniforms and on different forms of transportation like bikes as well as patrol cars to make sure he knows one when he sees one.

• Make sure your child knows to phone 911 if he is in danger, on his cellphone if he's outside and on your home phone if he is alone.

• Set rules for who to approach for help in a mall, library, park or recreation center.

• If you want your child to walk to and from a recreation center or school by himself, try to arrange for a time when several of his friends are going so they can walk together.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, SafeKids, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

POLL: Do you turn your kids loose in public without you?


Here are some postings to the Times Free Press Facebook page about the issue

"I was babysitting at age 9. This whole thing is RIDICULOUS!"

-- Jennifer Mitts

"When I lived in Bay County (Panama City Beach, Fla.) I called the authorities to find out what is the age when a child can stay home alone. They told me 9 if they are responsible enough not to open doors, know when to call 911, can fix their own meal. Some 12-year-olds can't do that, some 9 year olds can."

-- Christine Morgan

"I personally think that a child between 10 and 12 shouldn't be left in a public place alone, period. Of course we love where we live, but the reality of it is this place is just as wicked as the hardcore cities. As a mother, it irritates me so much to see kids walking around public places alone! Never will my daughter be "dropped" off anywhere by herself or with her friends. Never."

-- Jessica Ashburn Griffith

"Just so everyone knows the world is as safe now as it was 10, 20, 30 or 70 years ago. It is purely a media perception that it is less safe. Get that mother out of jail and back with her kid."

-- Ocia Hartley

"I would never let my child stay all day at a public place like that, any nut could just pick them up. Times are different these days; it would be better to lose a job and be hungry than to never see your child again or in a casket. People need to think!!! This world is to crazy these days to take a chance on our children."

-- Tricia Watson

Corbin Levin enjoys the water-spraying dolphin.

Corbin Levin enjoys the water-spraying dolphin.

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

The day is sunny and sweltering and the Spray and Play at Warner Park is teeming with children. They love the geysers of water swooshing from the mouths of a wee purple hippo and a cobalt blue dolphin; they prance, run and leap through the various fountains, spumes and sprinklers triggered by motion sensors.

Pool manager Clarence McCray -- a Warner Park employee of 20 years -- is immensely proud that his dedicated teenage staff keep the restrooms, splash pad and wading pool safe and clean and ensure there is no bullying. Staffers even help small children don toddler-sized life jackets whenever kids want to visit the wading pool which MccRay says is no deeper than 12 inches.

Most of all, McCray is proud that Chattanooga parents can drop their children off at the splash pad and leave them all day without worry.

"A lot of low-income working parents can't afford child care, so they rely on us," McCray says as he shows visitors the 100 percent rating of excellence the facility received from the Hamilton County Health Department. "There are days when we have 300 kids here and a line waiting to get in. We let four kids out and four kids are able to come in, that's how popular this place is. A parent can leave a child here and go to work without worrying whether they are safe."

While many Chattanooga parents may feel comfortable leaving their children unaccompanied at a public park, when Debra Harrell of South Carolina did that last month, she was arrested and charged with felony child neglect.

Harrell, a McDonald's shift manager in North Augusta, S.C., let 9-year old daughter, Regina, play unsupervised all day in a local splash pad. Regina normally sat in McDonald's playing computer games while mom worked. But a burglar stole their laptop from their home. Regina, who is on her school's A-B honor roll, was bored and asked to play on the splash pad, a six-minute walk from their home.

Regina had a cellphone, strict instructions about where she could and couldn't go while at the park and a key to her house, Harrell's lawyer, Robert Verner Phillips, told CNN.

"She could have gone home at any time," he says.

But another parent saw the unsupervised Regina and called authorities. Harrell now faces a possible 10-year sentence.

Harrell's situation triggered a nationwide debate -- and dozens of lively comments on the Times Free Press Facebook page -- over when is a child too young to play unattended.

It also prompted a more unsettling question: Are there any safe places for a preteen child to play alone without an adult caretaker?

The Times Free Press Facebook page asked readers for their opinions and got a immediate, emphatic response. Most readers defended Harrell as a mother trying to support her child. The second question left readers almost equally divided. About half recalled playing alone, unsupervised, as children and thought Americans are becoming too overprotective. An equal number says there was no safe place to leave a child alone.

"So funny how nobody ever questions where the dad was or charges the dad," Gayla Nobles remarked in her Facebook posting. "Takes two people to have a kid. Why are the moms always getting in trouble for having no one to help them with their child while they try to make a living?"

On the other side of the issue, Sue Torbush expresses every parent's worst fear.

"There was once a time when children traveled in herds all over neighborhoods and the only thing we had to remember was we better be in our own yard before the streetlights came on," says Torbush, who lives in Salisbury, N.C. "Not so today. There is too much evil in the world. No, a 10-year-old should not be left alone anywhere."

Alexis Sanders is 30 years old and has worked as a Chattanooga nanny for six years. She posted: "Honestly, I was left home when I was 10 and never had a problem. I honestly think it's criminal that this poor woman would have any charges against her. How about we start rounding up child molesters, rapists and murderers instead of mothers who are trying to provide for their family?"

There were 23 child-neglect cases reported in Chattanooga in 2013 and 17 reported so far this year, according to Chattanooga Police Department Sgt. A.J. Easter. Neglect reports can be made when a child has not been given proper food, shelter, health care or clothing. Easter and police communications coordinator Kyle Miller say they are not aware of any arrests for a parent leaving a child unattended at a church, park or rec center here.

"Just like most crimes, intent, motive, means and opportunity have to be considered before you can determine whether or not an incident is in fact a crime and not accidental in nature." Miller says.

The last major U.S. study of child abductions -- which covers any child under 18 years old -- took place more than 10 years ago. In the study, conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice and covering 1999, most of the abductions -- more than 200,000 -- were done by family members such as estranged parents or a relative. But more than 58,000 children were taken by non-family members.

The study distinguished between three main types of kidnapping: kidnapping by a family member (49 percent), kidnapping by an acquaintance (27 percent) and kidnapping by a stranger to the victim (24 percent).

Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama laws do not address whether a library, Vacation Bible School, mall or splash park is an appropriate place to leave a child alone for a day. Laws in each state focus on whether an adult puts a child in harm's way -- physically or mentally -- by failing to provide food, shelter or medical care, by injuring them physically, through sexual abuse or by general neglect. In Alabama, child abuse also includes exposing a child to drugs or drug-making.

Nor do the three states indicate an age at which it's appropriate to leave a child unattended. The Tennessee Juvenile and Family Courts website specifically states that there is no age requirement for when a child can be left home alone. But it also says, "Obviously, young children under age 10 should not be left home alone without supervision at any time."

Sanders, the Chattanooga nanny, told the Times Free Press she was often allowed to play unsupervised outdoors when she was a child back in the 1980s.

"Sometimes I wonder whether there has been a large increase in child abductions or disappearances or whether we are just more aware of them due to (communications) technology and social media, and that's why we are more nervous in this era," Sanders mused.

Maggie Akins demonstrates the buoyancy of a safety vest at the Warner Park pool.

Maggie Akins demonstrates the buoyancy of a safety...

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

It's a question echoed by many baby boomers, including East Ridge Parks and Recreation Director Marvin "Stump" Martin. He can remember being allowed to play outside all summer day as long as he was home by the time the streetlights came on.

"We haven't posted any rules about unattended children in the parks here, but maybe that is something we should discuss," Martin says. "When I was 10, I lived in Mountain View. My friends and I would ride our bikes down to Fort Oglethorpe in the summer, spend awhile exploring the battlefield, have a burger or ice cream, then come home without ever spending a dime to make a phone call to our parents. Times are different now."

As parks director, he recalls seeing two preteen brothers who were dropped off at a fishing rodeo his department was sponsoring. All the other children had a parent or adult with them.

"I took them under my wing, made sure they knew how to get their bait and use a line, made sure they got hamburgers and drinks," Martin says. "It's the one time I remember noticing kids that age without parents in a park. It didn't pose a problem but I do remember wanting to watch out for them."

Trina Benson describes herself as a single mom who works outside the home. On the newspaper's Facebook page, she responded to comments that suggested single mothers call in to work and tell their bosses they must stay at home when the babysitter can't come take care of the children or some other problem arises.

"If you call out, you get fired. If you leave them home, you get a visit from children's services. Child care is costly," she explains in her posting.

Benson, who graduated from Rossville High School in 1978, says she allowed her 11-year-old son t stay home while she worked because he was "very responsible. He never answered the door or phone ... I left my own number on the wall along with police and fire (contacts)."

She ends her post by saying her sons grew up to be healthy and happy and she was never in trouble for her child rearing.

Jessica Campbell of Chattanooga wrote that she doesn't see what Harrell did as child abuse. "It was a poor decision on her part but I guess she was thinking the child would be safer than at home alone," she wrote.

When one visitor suggested KidsPark in Hamilton Place as a safe place for children to play while mothers worked, another visitor observed that the $8-per-hour fee was probably more than a McDonald's worker's hourly wage.

A few parents say they feel comfortable leaving a child older than 9 at a library or Boys and Girls Club alone for a few hours, but they do not feel comfortable about leaving them unsupervised all day.

"No place is safe," wrote Karen Polcen, who lives in Henagar, Ala. "As a single mom, I took my then-2 year old daughter to work with me when I was a Pizza Hut delivery driver. She was in the car."

Contact Lynda Edwards at or 423-757-6391.