At what age can a child legally be left home alone in NJ?
For more than three decades, families this time of year have delighted in watching a young Macaulay Culkin flash a devilish grin at the camera and say incredulously, "I made my family disappear."
But unlike that 1990 Christmas classic, it's rarely a lot of fun and games (albeit likely not also fighting off burglars) when a child is left home alone.
In New Jersey, there is no legal age specified for when a parent or guardian can leave a child without supervision.
Even so, there can be serious ramifications for adults if children encounter harm in such a scenario, according to Elena Weitz, senior associate with Short Hills-based Williams Law Group.
Weitz said unfortunately for parents it's a judgment call, though she does advise them to consult the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics — which says age 11 or 12 is OK, but not for longer than about three hours during the day.
A pediatrician can help evaluate whether a certain child is appropriate for the privilege in both age and maturity, Weitz said.
"Is a child ready to be left alone? What age is the child? Is there possible harm that can befall the child if they are left alone? So it really is sort of a judgment call and a balancing decision that the parents need to make," she said.
Kids left alone because child care is too expensive
Sometimes having to leave a child unsupervised is a matter of cost, Weitz said. Rising child care expenses may be a bridge too far for some.
But whatever the particular scenario, she said the best interests of the child should always be prioritized, so if there is no other solution, adult and child should work together to formulate a plan.
What is a child allowed or not allowed to do? Can they use the microwave, the toaster, or the stove?
And what happens in an emergency? Do they go to a neighbor's house? Call the police?
"If a parent is going to be leaving a child alone, they need to be assured of the child's maturity level," Weitz said. "They have to go over just sort of common-sense planning."
What charges could a parent face?
That of course does not guarantee a child will not be harmed if left alone. And while the police aren't going door-to-door, a neighbor may notice, or the child may have told someone like a teacher, who is a mandatory reporter to the Division of Child Protection and Permanency.
It is also possible that another family member could be aware of the situation and could report it, or one parent could rat out another in the middle of divorce proceedings.
Action against the adults responsible could result from those cases, Weitz said.
"Perhaps while the child is left alone, something happens to the child and there are allegations not only of neglect, but possible abuse if the child is injured while they are left alone at home," she said.
Parents: be ready to prove your case
So from a legal perspective, a parent's best defense is to document as much as possible.
If there is a plan, write it out. If a neighbor is a designated emergency contact, they can be a witness.
"In this day and age, a lot of people have surveillance cameras inside and outside of the house," Weitz said. "Show that you are surveilling the child even if you're not there, that you're in contact with the child."
Another tip: Make sure the child has a snack or meal available while unsupervised.
Above all, being able to prove that the child knows the rules of the house goes a long way, Weitz said, toward avoiding legal recourse.