'Home alone' neglect laws vague
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Authorities and experts say it is not uncommon for young children to be left home alone -- sometimes as an act of parental neglect and sometimes for reasons beyond the parent's control.Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Yesterday people still looked on in disbelief at the house where a fire claimed five young lives.
Click photo for larger image.
And the law is vague about when such acts constitute criminal neglect. There is no age threshold in Pennsylvania for when it is permissible to leave a child or children at home unattended.
In Tuesday's fire that killed five children in Larimer, the victims were 3 to 7 years old; initial indications were that no one older than 8 was at home.
The Allegheny County district attorney's office, which is investigating, would not comment yesterday on the possibility of criminal charges in the case.
"The law is not clear as to what constitutes neglect and abuse," said Randa Clark, district attorney in neighboring Butler County.
Investigators in such cases must piece together the facts and circumstances leading up to the deaths and consult case law in determining whether to file charges, she said.
"You have to look at each factual scenario. For how long were they alone? Under what circumstances? Was there an arrangement for a sitter? Who was it?" Ms. Clark said.
"Then you look at the law and the case law that interprets the statutes, which are admittedly general. That's why you have to ... see if any of your facts meet the standards that have been previously set by the courts for criminality.
"It's never wise to rush to judgment," she said. "It's wise to do a thorough investigation. You're dealing with a tremendous tragedy. The last thing you want to do is compound the situation by labeling it as a criminal incident."
The Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., reported in 2004 that more than 11 percent of 6- to 12-year-olds are in "self-care" -- alone or with a sibling younger than 13 -- during the summer, about the same proportion as during the school year.
"For some families leaving a child alone is often a necessity because of a lack of child care or other options. For others, leaving children alone is a symptom of parental neglect owing to any number of causes. Further, some evidence suggests that lack of supervision cases are highly correlated with child fatalities," the institute's researchers said.
Other studies have concluded that a majority of child abuse cases involve neglect rather than physical or sexual mistreatment. Often, the neglect is a byproduct of drug abuse by the parent.
"This case is extraordinary, but it is not unusual that children are inappropriately supervised," said Judge Jill Rangos of Allegheny County family court. "I would guess that 80 percent of abuse cases are neglect. Based on my caseload, I would estimate that we have kids left at home or left with an unknown caregiver probably once a week."
Like laws in most states, Pennsylvania's doesn't define how young is too young to leave a child home alone.
Dayna Jornsay-Hester, community education coordinator at Children's Hospital, who runs classes for parents and children called "Alone at Home," said "the big question is, can they respond appropriately in an emergency?"
The program suggests that children younger than 10 not be left home alone, although Ms. Jornsay-Hester noted that plenty of 12-year-olds were not mature enough to be left on their own.
"The bottom line is a lot of kids can change a diaper, but can they handle a situation that's an emergency? It takes a certain amount of maturity. There are a lot of adults who fall apart in a crisis," she said.
Pittsburgh Police Assistant Chief of Investigations Maurita Bryant said the Larimer fire has triggered extraordinary outrage in the community, prompting people who under less tragic circumstances might have stayed silent to contact and cooperate with police.
First Published June 13, 2007 11:31 pm