Help! COVID-19 has shut down my child’s daycare. Is it legal for me to leave my child home alone?
As we all try to navigate COVID-19’s impact on our daily lives, many parents are asking themselves – what am I supposed to do with my children while I work? As of July, 2020 Virginia is currently in Phase 3 and many daycare centers and childcare providers continue to keep their doors closed.
Surprisingly, there are no laws in Virginia that govern when or how long a child can legally be left at home alone. Some localities, such as Fairfax, have guidelines concerning the age at which a child may be left without supervision; however, those in Southside Tidewater (Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Suffolk) do not. However, the Virginia Department of Social Services (DSS) has established guidelines for parents to consider when making the important decision of when and for how long they leave their children at home without supervision.
The Virginia DSS indicates that Child Protective Services (CPS) will assess the following areas when determining whether a child is capable of being left alone and whether a parent or guardian is providing adequate supervision.
1. A Child's Level of Maturity. CPS will want to assess whether the child:
- Is physically capable of taking care of himself or herself
- Is mentally capable of recognizing and avoiding danger and making sound decisions
- Is emotionally ready to be alone
- Knows what to do and whom to call if an emergency arises
- Has any special physical, emotional, or behavioral problems that make it unwise to leave be left alone
2. Accessibility of Those Responsible for the Child. CPS will want to determine the following:
- Location and proximity of the parents
- Whether the parents can be reached by phone and get home quickly if needed
- Whether the child knows the parents' location and how to reach them
3. The Situation. CPS will want to assess the following:
- Time of day and length of time the child is left alone
- The safety of the home and neighborhood
- Whether the parents have arranged for nearby adults to be available in case a problem arises
- Whether there is a family history of child abuse or neglect
CPS also notes that age is not usually an accurate indicator of a child's maturity level. For example, a very mature 11-year-old may be ready to stay home alone, whereas a 15-year-old may not be ready due to emotional or behavioral difficulties. Additionally, just because a child may be ready to care for himself or herself, it does not necessarily mean that he or she is ready to care for their younger sibling without adult supervision.
As a result, it is extremely important to carefully consider each of these factors when determining if your children are ready to stay home alone, both for the safety of your children, as well as avoiding issues with a non-custodial parent and/or CPS.