In late June five-year-old Brandajah Smith was taken off life-support machines after she was declared brain dead in New Orleans. Little Brandajah was left home alone by her mother who went to a neighborhood store to buy a few things. While playing alone, Brandajah found a loaded pistol hidden under a pillow and the gun went off, striking her in the head.
The 28-year-old Laderika Smith is now under a suicide watch behind bars facing charges of cruelty to a juvenile, possibly a second-degree murder charge or more probably negligent homicide. Her bail has been set at $20,000.
Running to the store to pick up a few things was not such a good idea after all.
Laderika is not the only parent to make such a bad judgment call – in fact it is a common occurrence in many communities across the country. Not all parents return to the kind of scene Laderika found that day, most are lucky and nothing disastrous happens to their children. Laderika will no doubt agonize for the rest of her life over the bad decision she made.
In my Parents Anonymous group, one father had been mandated to attend because he left his five-year-old alone in his front yard to play while he went to do a few errands in his car. He just did not know or understand the risks involved. Many parents make very similar errors in judgment.
When Chelsey was about nine she was sick and I needed to refill her medication. Since the medication was ready for pickup a round trip would take fifteen minutes— tops. Chelsey assured me she would be safe. She said I worry too much; I grilled her on all the safety rules – don’t answer the door, etc. – and felt sure I covered everything that could happen. I zipped to the pharmacy, paid and zipped back. As I topped the hill I could see Chelsey standing on the front steps crying hysterically— as soon as I went out of sight she had freaked out. Neither she nor I could have predicted that happening. At the next Parents Anonymous meeting I told everyone what happened. After that I waited several years before leaving either child home alone.
Why do parents leave children home alone?
• Most parents like me think that since they are only going for a short distance for a short time that nothing can possibly go wrong.
• Parents think their child is more capable or knowledgeable than they are in reality.
• Parents do not realize the dangers and how quickly something can happen.
• Parents do not understand the legal implications they may face leaving a child home alone.
• A very few parents may not be concerned if their child is put at risk.
What does the law say?
The law will not state an age at which a child can be left home alone. The laws hinge on several factors to ensure a child’s safety, one being that no child should be left home alone below the age of twelve. No teenager should be left alone for an entire weekend. Parents are held responsible for judging their children to be safe. If parents make a bad decision and leaves a young child alone under age twelve they can be investigated by child protective services or punished by the courts if a child is hurt or dies. In legalities— love doesn’t matter!
What are some of the safety and risk factors that must be considered?
• Is the child twelve-years-old? (There are even guidelines for kids over age twelve.)
• Are they developmentally and physically able to stay alone? (Mentally handicapped, mental health issues, etc.)
• Is the child responsible? (Do they obey rules, behave as expected, etc.)
• Are they mature enough to make good decisions? (Opening the door when safe, answering the phone, etc.)
• Will the child obey the rules? (No friends, no cooking, etc.)
• Is the environment safe enough? (No exposed electrical wiring, unfinished construction, etc.)
• Is the community safe or is it a high crime area? (No drug sellers, gang members, etc.)
• Are there neighbors or other adults nearby the child could ask for help?
• Can the child operate any needed machinery? (Garage doors, microwaves, etc.)
• Would the child be afraid to be alone? To save face a child might agree to but may still be nervous about being home alone.
• If there are more than two children to be left alone, do they get along well?
• Has the child taken any classes or workshops given by local hospitals, clinics, school or colleges to become safer at home alone?
• If parents are thinking about leaving their child home alone and are questioning things on this list then, chances are they may want to re-think their plans.
After spending over ten years as a volunteer on the Family Helpline I know many parents are truly not sure when considering leaving their child home alone. From reading the news this week and my experiences with my daughter and other parents, it is clear we love our children but many of us left children at home that were not safe. The only difference between Laderika Smith and us is that our children did not get hurt.
Jackie Saulmon Ramirez has served as a volunteer with Parents Anonymous® of New Jersey, Inc. for more than twenty years, giving and getting support. Find her at her contact page.