Skye Thomas

Skye Thomas
Writer, Rebel, and Soapbox Ranter

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Experts: Rules for leaving kids alone

Guidelines exist when children are involved
By Rebecca Vesely and Paul Burgarino, STAFF WRITERS

Libbey Holden may be awarded custody of her two grandsons, Josh Callero, 10, and Jason Callero, 5, after their father left them home alone while he took a trip to Las Vegas. (Gina Halferty - Staff)
The case of two San Ramon boys left home alone while their parents partied in Las Vegas raises a question many busy parents face: When are children old enough to care for themselves, and for how long?

Both in the eyes of the California legal system and among child development experts, thereare no clear rules. But parents can follow some guidelines based on their children's maturity level and experience handling situations, experts said.

"Common sense plays a big role in when it is OK to leave children for any length of time," said Lynn Yaney, spokeswoman for the agency that handles child welfare in Contra Costa County.

Many child development experts believe parents shouldn't leave their children home alone overnight until age 14 or 15, and even then they should consider the teen's experience being without their parents, such as attending sleepovers or camp.

Younger kids simply aren't ready developmentally to stay home alone overnight, may have trouble being alone during the day and are usually ill-equipped to care for a younger sibling, said Dr. Lane Tanner, associate director of development and behavior in the pediatrics division of Children's Hospital Oakland.

"A general rule of thumb is that kids under age seven aren't capable of thinking logically and putting cause and effect together," Tanner said. "They are reliant on caregivers to structure their day."

Children between age 7 and 10 years old aren't generally ready to self-supervise for an extended period, but in a routine and predictable environment, such as just after school, they can manage, Tanner said. Kids 12 and 13 years old should be judged on a case-by-case basis but should not be left alone overnight.

"Things like preparing meals and using the stove, there are some very practical dangers here," he said.

Joshua and Jason Calero, ages 10 and 5, were left at their home in San Ramon by their father, Jacob Calero, and stepmother Michelle De La Vega, while the couple went on a five-day trip to Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 30, to celebrate the New Year.

The children were left with frozen dinners, the parents' cell phone number and a gas fireplace lit for heat.

On Saturday, a neighbor heard Jason screaming "Help me," from the Caleros' garage and brought the boy to his house until Joshua returned home. The boys spent one night alone before their maternal grandmother, concerned because no one was answering the home phone, called police.

The couple were charged Friday with two felony counts each of child endangerment. They could face up to eight years in prison.

A child of age 10 wouldn't react well to a crisis, said Carol Thompson of Child Care Links, an Alameda County group that is a liaison between government agencies and families that deal with child welfare.

"If a situation arises where the child has to deal with a fire breaking out or is in danger, they are going to react by crying or panic," she said.

At least 3.3 million children age 6 to 12 regularly spend time alone or with a young sibling, according to a 2003 survey of parents by Child Trends, a nonprofit child welfare research group.

Children in higher income families are more likely to be left unsupervised than children who live in low-income households, especially when they are young. Twelve percent of 6- to 12-year-olds in low-income families were in self-care versus 17 percent of those in families with higher incomes, according to Child Trends.

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