Disaster can strike a child left alone Perilous: When parents yield to the temptation to leave young ones to their own devices, it can lead to tragedy -- and criminal charges.

May 19, 1998|By Stacey Patton | Stacey Patton,SUN STAFF

In a Southwest Baltimore rowhouse 10 days ago, three children -- James Edward Ferguson, 5 months, Shaniqua Ferguson, 2, and Edward Ferguson, 3 -- died in a fire after being left home alone for only 10 minutes.

Neighbors said they saw the mother, Karen Johnson, walk to a nearby store to pay a bill. Before leaving, she called the children's grandmother. "I was heading over there," said Clara Johnson. "The children were only left alone for five or 10 minutes."

When the mother returned she found her house on fire and her children dead.

This is a parent's worst nightmare. Unfortunately, leaving children alone is a common practice in today's harried, high-pressure world.

A 1995 study from the Child Welfare League of America showed that 42 percent of children ages 5 to 9 were left alone occasionally, if not regularly.

It's usually not a case of chronically bad parenting, says Joyce Johnson, spokeswoman for the league, based in Washington. With both parents working in many households, sometimes there's a gap between work schedules and the time children get home from school. Sometimes, there's temptation to leave children for short periods to run quick errands.

"A lot of people think their children are prepared to stay home alone," says Johnson, 49, who has worked for the Child Welfare League for 13 years.

She herself left her son Terik home alone when he was 10.

"My son was very independent," says Johnson, so she allowed him to stay home alone after school, but for no longer than an hour and half.

"He wasn't allowed to do anything but lock himself in the house and do his homework," she says. "At that time [in the early '80s] there were neighbors, after-school programs and other recreational activities for kids. But today things are different."

She says many of the child-neglect cases that end up on the desktops of child protective services aren't abuse cases, but incidents where parents have left the child unsupervised.

"It is important that children are constantly supervised," she says.

In 1986, the Maryland Legislature made it illegal for a child under 8 to be locked or confined in a building or motor vehicle alone or out of the sight of the caretaker. However, it is legal to leave a child with a reliable person who is at least 13.

In the league study, the percentages of children left alone ranged from 28 percent of kindergartners to 77 percent of third-graders. Urban parents were much more likely to leave their children alone (45 percent occasionally and 15 percent regularly) than rural parents (28 percent occasionally and 8 percent regularly). Suburban parents were less likely to leave children alone regularly (3 percent) but more likely to leave them for that occasional trip to the grocery store (35 percent).

When asked why they left their children alone, the frustrated parents in the study simply said, "I'm doing the best I can" or "I tried to get somebody to watch the child."

Amanda Lietman, a 31-year-old Towson mother of 9 1/2 -month-old fraternal twins, says she has never left her kids alone but it has crossed her mind.

"I've been tempted to leave them in the car while I run into the dry cleaners," says Lietman, a Web-page maker. "I've been tempted to leave them napping in their cribs while I run to the store, which is two blocks away from my house. [But] I'm afraid of a fire, burglar or they'll wake up and really need me."

Steve Libowitz, the 45-year-old father of three girls in Baltimore County, says he's been tempted, too. "It's not a matter of thinking that the worst is not going to happen," he says. It's that "little voice in the back of your head that says, 'nah.' ' But you can't take your eyes off small children."

The league study also found that two-thirds of the children surveyed answered the phone inappropriately, did not know where emergency numbers were, and would open the door for strangers.

Johnson and the Child Welfare League do not advocate leaving children of any age alone. "You're taking a chance," said Johnson.

But, says Johnson, in some neighborhoods, "there are no affordable or accessible day-care programs for children, and there aren't always neighbors you can trust." She proposed forming community cooperatives and more child care in business places such as shopping centers.

Kathy Newson, a 44-year-old single parent from Northwest Baltimore, said leaving her 4-year-old daughter Kira home alone will never be an option.

"It was my choice to have a child, so it is my responsibility to make arrangements for her when I need to leave," said Newson, a Social Security worker.

But Newson said her job offers flex hours and she has a very supportive family that will watch Kira when she needs a sitter.

"I know I have options. But I also realize that everybody's situation is different," she said.

Tips for parents

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