News Release 

At what age is it considered child neglect to leave a child home alone?

Research shows social workers' opinions vary, depending on if laws are in place or if a child is injured while left unsupervised

American Academy of Pediatrics

NEW ORLEANS - A majority of social workers surveyed believe children should be at least 12 before being left home alone four hours or longer, and they are more likely to consider a home-alone scenario as neglect if a child is injured while left unsupervised, according to research being presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) 2019 National Conference & Exhibition.

The research abstract, "Social Workers' Determination of When a Child Being Left Home Alone Constitutes Child Neglect," will be presented on Monday, Oct. 28 at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

"We found that social workers who participated in the study were significantly more likely to consider it child neglect when a child was left home alone if the child had suffered an injury, as compared to when they did not," said Charles Jennissen, MD, FAAP, clinical professor and pediatric emergency medicine staff physician for the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine in Iowa City.

"The level of neglect is really the same whether a child knowingly left home alone is injured or not, and such situations should be handled the same by child protective investigators," he said.

For the study, researchers surveyed 485 members of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) who designated their practice as "Child/Family Welfare" from October to December 2015. They provided scenario conditions through an emailed survey in which a child of varying age was left home alone for four hours. The scenarios also varied by whether the child had been injured or not when left at home alone, and if there were a relevant "home alone" laws.

In cases where a child was not injured, nearly every social worker determined that leaving a child home alone for four hours was child neglect when the child was 6 years old or younger. More than 80% of social workers stated that this was child neglect if the child was 8 years or younger; about 50% stated it was child neglect if the child was 10 or younger. A lower proportion described the scenario as child neglect when a child was age 12 or 14.

When the scenarios included the conditions where a law made it illegal to leave a child at home alone or a child was injured, social workers were significantly more likely to consider it a case of child neglect at 8, 10, 12 and 14 years of age. The social workers were also asked at what age should it be illegal to leave a child alone for four hours, over one-half stated it should be illegal for children under 12 years of age and four-fifths agreed it should be illegal for children under 10 years.

Studies have shown that the lack of adult supervision contributes to more than 40% of U.S. pediatric injury-related deaths, the authors note. They say that the results suggest the need for uniform guidelines and safety laws related to childhood supervision nationally, in order to direct social workers in their evaluation of potential cases of child neglect and to better protect children from harm.

"This study recognizes that there are critical connections between safety laws, advocates and professionals in child welfare, and families with small children," said Gerene Denning, PhD, emeritus research scientist at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. "It takes partnership between all of these to prevent childhood injuries."

Dr. Jennissen will present an abstract of the study, available below, between 8 - 9 a.m. Oct. 28 at the Council on Child Abuse and Neglect Program in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, Room 386-387. To request an interview with an author, journalists may contact AAP Public Affairs or Cheryl Hodgson at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children's Hospital, cheryl-hodgson@uiowa.edu or (319) 353-7193.]

In addition, Dr. Jennissen will be among the highlighted abstract authors who will be giving brief presentations and be available for interviews during a press conference starting at noon on Sunday, Oct. 27, in rooms 208-209 (Press Office) of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. During the meeting. You may reach AAP media relations staff in the National Conference Press Room at 504-670-5406.

Please note: only the abstract is being presented at the meeting. In some cases, the researcher may have more data available to share with media, or may be preparing a longer article for submission to a journal.

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The American Academy of Pediatrics is an organization of 67,000 primary care pediatricians, pediatric medical subspecialists and pediatric surgical specialists dedicated to the health, safety and well-being of infants, children, adolescents and young adults. For more information, visit http://www.aap.org. Reporters can access the meeting program and other relevant meeting information through the AAP meeting website at http://www.aapexperience.org/

Abstract Title: Social Workers' Determination of When a Child Being Left Home Alone Constitutes Child Neglect

Charles Jennissen, MD, FAAP

Purpose: Decisions made by child welfare workers related to the determination of child neglect play an important role in promoting responsible childcare and preventing harm to children. However, the factors that influence these decisions are poorly understood. This study's objective was to identify factors influencing determination by social workers as to when leaving children home alone constitutes child neglect. Methods: Email invitations to participate in an online survey were delivered from October through December of 2015 to National Association of Social Workers (NASW) members designating their practice as "Child/Family Welfare" (N=4,933). Respondents were asked to indicate whether scenarios involving a child of varying age knowingly left home alone for four hours were neglect, in the presence or absence of injury to the child and the presence or absence of relevant law. Descriptive (frequencies) and bivariate (chi square) analyses were performed. Results: 485 child/family welfare social workers completed the survey, ~10% of those who received an email invitation. In the scenario where there were no relevant laws and the child was uninjured, almost 100% of experts determined this was child neglect for children 4 years old. For 6, 8, 10, 12, and 14 years of age, this was 97%, 83%, 51%, 11%, and 1%, respectively. A significantly higher percentage of social workers considered it child neglect for most ages if there was an injury versus not, and if there was a law versus not. For 14 years of age, the proportion went from 1% if there was no law and no injury to 51% if there was a law and the child was injured. Similarly, for 12 years of age, the proportion went from 11% if there was no law and no injury to 64% if there was a law and the child was injured. There were some demographic differences observed in the ages determined to be child neglect for each scenario. Ninety-four percent of participants stated that leaving a child home alone for four hours should be illegal if the child was <8 years old, and over 80% said it should be illegal for children <10 years of age. Conclusions: Despite the risk to the child being the same, sustaining an injury and the presence of a law both increased the percentage of social workers that considered a child being left home alone for 4 hours as child neglect. These results suggest the need for guidelines and/or safety laws related to childhood supervision, as well as their uniformity across the country, in order to direct social workers in their evaluation of potential cases of child neglect and to better protect children from harm.

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AAP media contacts: Lisa Black, 630-626-6084, lblack@aap.org

Laura Alessio, 630-626-6276, lalessio@aap.org

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