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Home alone, but at what age?

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MOORHEAD, Minn. — It's a popular time of year for kids to be home alone, but how long can Minnesota children be unattended? The state's laws largely leave it up to parents to decide, though there are some guidelines that can help.

Parental concerns about safety might trump the desire of kids and teens to stay home by themselves. But with the costs of child care skyrocketing, allowing Jimmy or Jenny to be alone can sometimes make the most economical sense.

One recent study suggested Minnesota's cost of child care is among the highest in the country, and the state's average cost of infant care now tops $13,500 per year. It's easy to know that infants can't and shouldn't be left alone, but what about the older kids?

Well, it's a little more complicated.

In Minnesota, like North Dakota, there is no actual law that explicitly states how old a child must be before they can be left at home alone. In fact, only three states in the U.S. actually have laws regarding age like that, with Illinois setting the minimum age at 14, Oregon saying kids must be at least 10 and Maryland opting for a low age limit of 8.

However, Minnesota does have laws requiring parents to provide their children with adequate supervision so they're not left in unsafe situations. According to a 2014 report from the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare at the University of Minnesota, "Minnesota has a state-supervised, county-administered child welfare system." This means while there is no official age minimum for staying home, there are certain guidelines that, if not followed, can be considered a form of neglect.

For example, the Minnesota Department of Human Services' child maltreatment screening guidelines states a parent or guardian can be investigated for neglect if a child who is 7 or younger is left alone for any amount of time. Leaving children 8 to 10 alone for more than three hours could be considered neglect, according to those same guidelines.

Children between the ages of 11 and 13 are able to stay alone for up to 12 hours, while those 14 to 15 can be left without supervision for up to 24 hours. This also applies to when children are able to care for other children, including baby-sitting. According to the same guidelines, children 11 and younger should not provide child care to others.

Age matters, but children may need to be older depending on their individual abilities, activities and environment. Situations that may affect these guidelines include accessibility to parents or guardians, their mental ability or maturity level and even whether they feel confident and safe when being left alone.

State guidelines and agencies suggest parents should feel comfortable when leaving their children home alone for the first time. Discussing emergency situations and plans of actions can help make sure that kids and teens know what to do if something should happen.

A 2013 report published by the national Child Welfare Information Gateway recommends that parents evaluate their child's maturity and past examples of responsible behavior when making any decisions about their ability to be independent at home.

For example, the report suggests considering if the girl or boy is able to physically and mentally care for themselves, can obey rules and make good decisions and how they handle unfamiliar or stressful situations.

The circumstances will matter, too, according to the report, such as how long the child will be left alone, what time of day it will be and if they'll need to make food while alone.

Emma Vatnsdal

Emma Vatnsdal is a Features writer, focused on telling stories about people, places and all the interesting things that come along with it. She earned her degree in multimedia journalism from Minnesota State University Moorhead and joined the Forum Communications team in 2017. She grew up in the far north town of Roseau, Minn. and has a thick Minnesotan-Canadian accent. Follow her on Twitter @emmajeaniewenie.

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