It’s finally cooling down in Texas, and the heartbreaking stories of kids left in hot cars have faded from the headlines. So are parents now okay to leave their kids in the car alone for a few minutes? How about at home? It may be completely reasonable and safe to do either, but State law takes many such decisions out of your hands. Here’s what you need to know:
When is it okay to leave a child alone?
That’s a difficult question that’s left up to the discretion of the parent. Texas does not have a clear-cut legal age, and there are few states that do. In Maryland, the child must be eight to be left alone in a house or vehicle. In Illinois, you can be arrested for leaving your thirteen-year-old home alone, regardless of the maturity level and capabilities of the child. Nonsensical nanny-statism on display.
Texas, like most states, takes the more reasoned approach of “it depends”. I personally know a seven-year-old that I would be completely comfortable leaving at home or in the car for short periods of time. Then there are adults who I question… but that’s another topic. My wife was babysitting other people’s kids when she was twelve. Texas law leaves it to the parents to decide when a child is mature enough to handle being alone, and for how long.
I’m no fan – AT ALL – of Child Protective Services, but they do have a decent checklist for parents to consider. And since it’s CPS that will be second-guessing your decision if something goes wrong, it’s good to know what the agency’s standard is. They suggest asking the following questions:
- How old, emotionally mature, and capable is your child?
- What is the layout/ safety of the home, play area, or other setting?
- What are the hazards and risks in the neighborhood?
- What is your child’s ability to respond to illness, fire, weather, or other types of emergencies?
- Does your child have a mental, physical, or medical disability?
- How many children are being left unsupervised?
- Do they know where you are?
- Can they contact you or other responsible adults?
- How long and how often is the child (or children) left alone?
May I leave a child alone in my car even for a short time?
Probably not. Leaving a child unattended in a car may be a crime punishable under the Texas Penal Code, Title 5, Chapter 22, Section 10:
Sec. 22.10. LEAVING A CHILD IN A VEHICLE. (a) A person commits an offense if he intentionally or knowingly leaves a child in a motor vehicle for longer than five minutes, knowing that the child is:
(1) younger than seven years of age; and
(2) not attended by an individual in the vehicle who is 14 years of age or older.
(b) An offense under this section is a Class C misdemeanor.
(Emphasis added.) If your child is injured by your leaving him in the car, the charge may be increased to a felony with a possible two-year prison sentence and a $10,000.00 fine.
So if your child is under seven and you don’t have a 14-year-old handy, don’t do it even if it’s for five minutes. If someone calls the police (or CPS) on you, you’ll have to convince the officer that it truly was only five minutes. Not easily done.
And as a practical matter, I urge you to NEVER leave a young child in the car during our warm months. A child trapped in a car during hot weather can suffer heat exhaustion or heat stroke in a matter of minutes, leading to permanent disability or death. Heat stroke, also known as hyperthermia, can cause shock, seizures, irregular heartbeat, and heart attack, as well as brain, liver, and kidney damage.