If you leave your first-grader home alone watching "Beauty & The Beast" while you dash to the corner store for milk is it neglect?
In Maryland, at least, it's illegal. Maryland's unattended child law states a child under 8 cannot be left alone whether at home, in a car or in any enclosure without supervision by someone who is at least 13 years old. Nationwide, similar laws vary from state to state.
Recent accounts about David and Sharon Schoo, the Illinois couple who left their 9-year-old daughter in charge of her 4-year-old sister while they vacationed in Mexico over Christmas have brought the issue of who is alone too long or too young to the forefront of parents' and childcare professionals' minds.
Parents often are faced with weighing expedience, economic necessity and good parenting to make judgment calls: Is my child safe for an hour after school while I'm at work, is my eldest able to care for his siblings for an evening, will my child suffer psychologically if I -- to the store without him?
Such concerns confront parents daily, says Sue Meier, director of CHILDHELP, a national child abuse prevention hot line, whose Los Angeles-based organization fields questions from mothers and fathers unsure about what age they can leave their children alone safely.
"There are 15-year-olds who have no idea of how to take care of themselves and 8-year-olds who are very capable," she says.
To Janet Billson, assistant executive officer with the American Sociological Association, the Schoos' case illuminates the ongoing debate about parental duty.
"Some cultures have defined the parenting role fairly narrowly," she says. "If parenting were defined simply as providing a roof over the child's head as well as providing food, medical care, education and some sort of minimum inoculation of morals, there would be no uproar or disgrace in leaving your child or in not protecting your child."
What constitutes good parenting is clearly open to interpretation, she says.
"There may be an agreed-upon lowest common denominator such as: If you leave the children on the front porch and don't feed them well, this is child abuse and neglect. But there are a lot of muddy, gray cases," Ms. Billson says.
It is often difficult for social workers to decide what scenarios constitute neglect, says Rebecca Hegar, associate professor of family policy at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
"In addition to the age of children left alone at home, you must look at who knows that the children are there and who is available to give them help and support if necessary. You must consider who's looking in on them, if they have an emergency way of getting in touch with help. . . . It's never OK to leave kids alone in a place where no one knows what their situation is."
Although some parents leave children alone through personal selfishness, many more lack the alternative support which would help them in a pinch, Ms. Hegar says.
"Take the parent who needs to go to the drugstore for medicine and is debating whether to leave the sick baby who has just fallen asleep in the crib or to drag her out in the cold because there's not another person to call on," she says.
"This is often a situation related to poverty and lack of resources. More and more kids live in single-parent families which are poorly supported. It's a judgment call and a lot of parents sometimes make the wrong judgment call."
Being left alone may erode children's basic sense of trust, says Joy Silberg, a senior staff psychologist at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital.
"They may become excessively self-reliant -- which might sound like a good thing -- but if you can't feel as if you can trust other people, then that ultimately isn't a good thing."
Young children left in charge of younger children must often shoulder a harmful degree of responsibility, says Geoffrey Greif, associate professor of family therapy in the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
"The child is taking care of the parents to some extent by playing such a central role. . . . Kids left alone can feel they have too much power too soon. It's something they can't cope with."
Many latchkey children have no choice. Preliminary findings from a national survey of middle schoolers by physician Patricia Fosarelli of the Johns Hopkins Children's Center show that 49 percent of sixth graders are latch-key children. Linda Schwartz's "What Would You Do?" a newly published guide for latchkey children in elementary schools, estimates that as many as 10 million children aged 8 to 12 are left alone for some part of the day.
"We all know people who let themselves in with a key and call their mom and there's no problem," says Sue Fitzsimmons, public information officer for the state's division of social services in Baltimore City. "And usually the guideline is that the child has someone else to call if the parent isn't there. Or responsible parents make arrangements with neighbors."