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You’re Guilty! She’s Guilty! We’re ALL Guilty!

Forget Macauley Culkin’s “Home Alone” comedy. These days, is it ever a laughing matter—let alone acceptable—when a child is left home without an adult present?

You and I are guilty. 

What crime have we committed?  Apparently, at some point in our lives, we’ve been guilty either of child neglect or of busybody, un-neighborly meddling.

Consider the judgmental reactions to the recent case of a when her 4-year-old wandered off while in the care of a 13-year-old sibling. Judging by those judgmental reactions, there’s no right in this situation, so you and I must be similarly guilty as charged.

According to published reports, police say this mother left her four children—ranging in age from 13 years to 8 months—alone at home to go to church. Police were called to the home by a neighbor who said the woman’s 4-year-old had wandered into the yard across the street alone. Police arrested the mother and charged her with risk of injury to a minor.

When Patch published the police blotter arrest report, comments flew fast and furious—170 at last count in the days that followed since the arrest. Here’s the understatement of the year:  about whether the mother was right to leave her eldest child to watch over the younger three children, and whether she as the parent should be held accountable when the 4-year-old wandered off.

But just as there are critics of the mom, Patch readers had some forceful opinions about the neighbor who summoned police, with some accusing her of acting in anything but a neighborly way. Instead of calling police, many said, she should have simply walked the child back across the street and offered a sympathetic hand to a fellow resident.

Dorothy, it seems we’re not in small town—or old time—Kansas anymore.

In some ways I’ve been both the parent in this situation and the kid. And at one point or another, I’m sure I’ve been the bystander too.

As a parent, I’ve got to say deciding when and whether to leave your children is a case-by-case thing and it’s completely individual.

I've hired 13-year-old babysitters to watch my children when they were between 18 months and 6-years-old. I knew the teens well and they were truly smart, responsible kids—plus I wasn't headed into New York City for a late night out, but rather I’d opted for this childcare solution knowing I’d be close by right here in town.

I’d like to think that a mother knows her own child and that child's abilities and limits; many readers felt it was wrong to criticize the mother's parenting without knowing the full extent of the family’s situation. With our own pre-tween 10-year-old, my husband and I have begun to figure out how to begin extending the boundaries and comfort levels of leaving him alone for 15 minutes or so and teaching him how to feel comfortable and responsible when he’s old enough to spend more extensive time on his own.

Each parent has to determine when moments are right to teach children responsibilities and independence. So too, sometimes, the realities of busy family life and schedules necessitate teaching kids how to care for themselves and siblings. That should be up to the parents, within the confines of the law. 

Speaking of which, what does the law say about this case? Not a whole lot. There are guidelines provided by CT’s Department of Children and Family that say it’s up to each parent, depending on their child’s readiness, but that “Experts believe a child should be at least 12 before he is left alone, and at least 15 before he can care for a younger brother or sister. These are the minimum ages. Not every child is ready then.”

(It’s important to note that, according to safekids.org, “even if a state does not have a specific law prohibiting adults from leaving children unattended, state and local prosecutors have the discretion to criminally charge adults under existing child endangerment laws.”)

Way back when I was a child, I walked to and from school alone from the age of five. Different times, different mores, I know. Looking back even further, the summer when my dad was only 10, his hard-working parents stayed in the city to work while they left him alone at a Catskills summer bungalow colony, Mondays through Saturday mornings.

Five and a half days. Alone.

They’d leave him with a big pot of spaghetti in the fridge, and under the watchful eye of the neighbor friend across the path every week, and he survived just fine until they joined him each weekend.

I joke that today my dad would be on the cover of the New York Post for days on end if he were a child of 2012. But then I think about the Etan Patz case making recent headlines again, and it’s no longer something to laugh about. Suddenly the good old days don’t feel so ‘safe’ anymore.

Which brings us to our ‘busybody’ neighbor. Perhaps she was the last defense between that New Canaan 4-year-old and tomorrow’s New York Post cover story. Who knows the true situation and back story there? Perhaps there were prior incidents of negligence, or bad blood between the main characters that prompted a vengeful call to police. There’s a wistful voice inside my head that asks, What happened to simply walking the neighbor’s 4-year-old back home before calling in the national guard? Perhaps she saved a life that day instead.

We hear more and more stories of parents who make poor choices to leave their children unattended— about kids left in a coffee shop while their mom grocery shopped ran shortly after the New Canaan story—and I’ve heard multiple local anecdotes of parents leaving minors in a car to dash in somewhere for a fast errand, only to find police waiting for them on their return.

In some ways, we’ve all been there, and made a momentary, split-second decision on either side of the coin. Do I wake the baby if I need to wait for my older child at the corner bus stop? Will my children be okay if I just step out of the car and leave them for a few moments to pay for gas inside the station or pick up the dry cleaning? Do I say something to that woman on the beach who walked away from her young children twice in the last hour?

Is it that times have changed? Because it isn’t that parents and kids have.  Should we look at this story with the stark, modern reality that there are bad people ‘Out There’ and feel that the need to be watchful, neurotic and paranoid in a big bad dark world is real?

Or are we mournful about the sad loss of a more innocent time, of neighbors who knew each other and looked out for one another, when police officers knew the community well enough to say, "It's a babysitting-sibling-family-thing, no need to handcuff anyone."

That’s overly simplistic but either way, the times, they have sure changed. So perhaps we need to realize that human nature hasn’t. Just as parents sometimes make poor choices when they're in need of a fast solution in busy times, so too is there a rush to criticize someone else’s choice, even in that there-but-for-the-grace-of-the-universe-go-I moment in time.

For even if we haven’t walked a mile in someone else’s shoes, at some point we likely have taken a few steps along the very same path.

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