Politics & Government

How young is too young to be home alone? It should be up to parents, SC lawmakers say

West Columbia mother Elizabeth Broadbent grew up a “latchkey kid.”

With her friends, she would walk for miles during the summer, gallivanting around their rural community.

“No one bothered us, and we didn’t have a cellphone. Nobody cared,” said Broadbent, a freelance writer for the parenting site ScaryMommy.com. “It was just something we did. No one would ever let their child do that today, and (it) speaks to the way we view childhood and the way we look at child independence today.”

Broadbent spoke Tuesday before a panel of S.C. legislators as they gathered additional testimony on a bill that would amend the state’s child abuse and neglect laws to say that children who are old enough and mature enough don’t always have to have adult supervision.

A state Senate panel had recommended setting a minimum age of 9 for when a child could be left on his or her own in a vehicle or at home, sparking concerns from some parents and child advocates

“I don’t think the government should have the right to come into my household and make that determination for me,” Broadbent told lawmakers.

Maggie Cash, executive director of the S.C. Children’s Hospital Collaborative, said the American Academy of Pediatrics generally recommends 11 or 12 years as the age at which parents can consider leaving a child at home alone. But, she added, “Age should never be a sole determinant.”

“I’m the mother of three teenage boys, and not all 12-year-olds are created equal and not all 9-year-olds are created equal,” Cash told lawmakers. “Establishing a minimum age is problematic. ... I appreciate the intent of the bill, but I can’t support it as written.”

Committee members subsequently voted to amend the bill, removing the age requirement and inserting language stating a child left unattended must be able to contact a parent, guardian or other responsible person. The bill also requires the adult responsible for the child’s welfare to return home on the same day and make provisions for someone to lend a hand in an emergency.

The bill would allow children to play outdoors or stay home alone, so long as the child’s “basic needs are met” and they are of “sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm, to engage in independent activities.”

Those activities include walking, running or biking to school or a nearby store, park, swimming pool and other recreational facility.

Supporters say the legislation would allow parents to use their common sense in giving children more freedom and independence, and clarifies the rules for law enforcement and state social workers.

“You wouldn’t know it ... but it’s actually the safest time to be a child in America,” said state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, the bill’s author.

Crime in the United States has fallen sharply over the past quarter century, including crimes against children, according to national statistics.

“Yet, we seem to live in this fear, driven in large part by what we see on television and internet,” Sheheen said. “I’ve experienced instances where this fear has driven neighbors or well-intended people to call the authorities or (S.C. Department of Social Services) based on their perceptions of what is appropriate.”

The proposal follows a 2014 incident in which a North Augusta single mother was charged with “unlawful neglect” of a child, a felony, for leaving her 9-year-old daughter at a park, with a cellphone and key to their home while she worked, according to CNN. The case later was dropped by the prosecutor, according to online court records.

That arrest sparked a debate over how young is too young to leave a child alone and unsupervised.

“The intent of this bill is not to protect neglectful people or abusers,” Sheheen. “It’s really to say to our public officials and to the public at large that, ‘Hey, don’t be afraid. It’s OK for kids — in reasonable circumstances — to have independence.’ And to leave discretion with the court.”

The bill now goes to the full Senate Judiciary Committee. If approved there, it goes to the full Senate.

Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.