It may come as a surprise that there is not a Virginia law that answers this exact question. There is no specific age at which you can legally leave your child at home alone unattended. However, there is guidance set forth from the Virginia Department of Social Services that parents should consider when making this determination:
- Your child’s maturity level. You know your child better than anyone else does. Is your child physically and mentally capable of taking care of themselves? Think of it this way: when you give your child a specific instruction, are they able to follow it without any additional assistance?
- How easily can your child reach you? It is not simply enough that an adult neighbor is available next door: you, as the parent and legal guardian, must be easily accessible. Does your child know how to use the telephone? Does the child have your telephone number memorized? What about 911—have you discussed when it is appropriate and necessary to dial for an emergency call?
- Why are you leaving your child alone? What is the overall situation? Are you making a quick run to the grocery store to grab more milk, or are you leaving your child at home alone overnight while you go to work the night shift at the hospital? Be sure to think objectively about the decision that you make—from the outside looking in, how would a third party perceive the situation if your child was left home alone?
Each of these factors also applies when leaving an older child in charge of younger children. Is the older child mature enough to handle any emergencies that may arise? Do any of the younger children have special needs warranting extra care that an older sibling may not be able to provide?
The issue of a child’s age often comes up in disputed custody cases. Parents will say things such as:
“She is not a good parent because she leaves our thirteen year old at home alone,” or
“His job doesn’t allow him to be at home at night to watch our child.”
In custody battles where these issues are raised, it is ultimately up to the court to decide if a parent has acted appropriately when leaving a child at home. The court may appoint a guardian ad litem to represent the child’s best interests and help to sort through these types of issues. A guardian ad litem is an attorney whose sole function is to represent and advocate for the best interests of your child. This attorney will conduct an independent investigation, including meeting with the child to determine the child’s ability to understand the current situation and potentially prepare them to testify. A child’s age and maturity level are key to determining whether the child will be asked to testify as to their preference in a custody case. Again, Virginia law does not provide a specific minimum age, and the guardian ad litem will assist the court in making this determination.
If you have questions about leaving a child home alone or in the care of an older sibling, it is best to review the particular facts of your case with an experienced family law attorney. Livesay & Myers, P.C. has teams of experienced custody lawyers in Manassas, Ashburn, Fredericksburg and Fairfax, Virginia. Contact us to schedule a consultation today.