Leaving eighth graders ‘home alone’ during holidays could lead to DCFS investigation

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Illinoisans who stop by the neighbors’ for eggnog this December will need to find someone to watch the kids, or they could find themselves under investigation by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

Unlike the parents in the Chicagoland Christmas classic “Home Alone,” Illinoisans can face investigation, arrest and even loss of custody of their children for leaving an eighth grader home unsupervised.

State law considers it neglect or abuse when “any minor under the age of 14 years whose parent or other person responsible for the minor’s welfare leaves the minor without supervision for an unreasonable period of time without regard for the mental or physical health, safety, or welfare of that minor.”

However, Illinois law doesn’t define “an unreasonable period of time.” Is an hour unreasonable? Two hours? It’s completely up to the interpretation of government employees, opening potential to abuse the rule.

Wilmette mother Corey Widen experienced this nightmare scenario firsthand. In 2018, she let her 8-year-old daughter, Dorothy, walk their dog, Marshmallow, around the block. A neighbor noticed her walking alone and called the police, who saw no grounds for negligence.

Illinois DCFS soon after opened an investigation into Widen’s family over the allegations of parental neglect. Agents visited her home and interviewed her children, her relatives and the family’s pediatrician before determining the case was unfounded.

Illinois’ law is the strictest in the nation. The highest age for a child to be left alone in other states is 12, and 30 states don’t have any age restrictions on leaving kids at home. Illinois parents can even temporarily lose custody of their children without a warrant at an officer’s discretion.

The Illinois House unanimously passed a bill attempting to lower the age for children to stay home from 14 to 12, but the 2022 bill ultimately stalled in the Senate.

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