A Chat with DCFS

After I posted yesterday about my internal debate over when to allow my kids to walk the 0.4 miles from school to home without an adult, I decided to go straight to the source for some answers. So, I called the the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services’s child and family policy office in Springfield.  A lovely woman named Tina answered the phone, and we spent 33 minutes talking.  I have always been a rule follower, and I don’t want to be in trouble with any office that could potentially take my kids away from me! My goal with our conversation was to understand the hard and fast rules when it comes to leaving kids alone – at home, in a car or out in their neighborhood.

Turns out, there are no hard and fast rules.

Tina told me that the law says if nothing happens to my kids, I’m safe. But if something happens my judgement will be scrutinized. If I let Evie walk home alone and she got hit by a car, Tina said that DCFS would look at many factors to make a decision on whether or not to charge me with neglect:

*age of child

*type of neighborhood – is it safe? city/rural? full of busy 4-lane streets? familiar to the child?

*was the child adequately prepared to be left alone?

*maturity level of the child

That last point is where I get nervous. I believe my oldest daughter (who is almost 7) is absolutely mature enough to walk home from school. She knows not to talk to strangers, she looks both ways when crossing streets, she loves being home and would likely do whatever it took to get here quickly.  However, if something happened to her on the walk home, how would I prove her maturity to an investigator?

Tina told me that the law basically says I’m on the hook until my kid is 15 (“babysitting age” as she put it). Illinois law defines a neglected minor, in part, as “any minor under the age of 14 years whose parent or other person responsible for the minor’s welfare leaves the minor without supervision for an unreasonable period of time without regard for the mental or physical health, safety or welfare of that minor.” As long as I take my kids’ welfare into strong consideration, I can leave my kid alone before the age of 15, but not for an “unreasonable” amount of time. I presume DCFS investigators would determine what is “unreasonable” if something terrible happened and I was under investigation.

As for the car thing, Tina did say that if I left the kids in the car for a couple minutes to run into the dry cleaner, I’d probably be safe. As long as they are in my line of sight, there is no extreme weather or temperatures, and a good kid is in the car to open a door in case of an emergency, she thinks the chances would be slim that a police officer or a DCFS investigator to come after me. Phew.

Tina directed me to a very hard-to-find “pamphlet” on-line that outlines what parents can do to prepare kids to be left alone. I spent a lot of time reading through this, and when the time comes for my kids to spread their wings a little, I am going to go over every bullet point with them. Someday the time will come when they want/need to venture out on their own, and I want to make sure we are all prepared.  Here is the link – regardless of which state or country you live in, it is a good set of guidelines: http://www.state.il.us/DCFS/docs/prepar_Kids.pdf

We all need to remember that bad things can happen to kids with or without adult supervision. A few weeks ago while I was in the bathroom Mack tripped going up the stairs. After two dental X-rays and a week of eating soft foods, he now has two grey teeth. But, 99.8% of the time when I leave them to use the bathroom absolutely nothing happens. As parents, we have to use our best judgement while giving our kids little bits of freedom whenever we deem it safe, necessary and important.

I love my kids and I love my job as “mom” and I never want to put them in a dangerous situation. However, I know that being a mom means that I have to teach my kids about self-reliance, maturity, and proper decision-making. At some point, I have to let them walk alone.

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12 Comments for this entry

  1. Jessica says:

    I follow your blog on a regular basis, and I think many of the things you talk about are so important when raising kids. You seem like a very sweet-natured, level-headed mama. However, I have to disagree with your stance on letting your little one walk home alone in a big city. Yes, we all did this as kids, but we also lived in a very different world. Not to mention, many people follow your blog and know approximately where you live, and now you’ve said you were going to let your sweet girl walk home alone. The thought of what others could do who know approximately where you live would be enough to make me do the shuttle every single day! The main reason I am commenting is about your comments about leaving kids in the car. Never, EVER leave kids in the car unattended. For SO MANY reasons! They can shift the car, they can move the car, someone can steal the car, etc. Even if you’re in eye sight, someone can still steal your car before you can get to them. I know it is difficult to get them all out to go in and pick up the dry cleaning, but every time I think of leaving mine for “just a quick second,” I remind myself that getting them out wouldn’t be worse than having my children taken. I am sure I am overprotective, but as a pediatric nurse, I see way too much! You know your kids best, so if walking home from school is something you want her to do, that is your judgment. But please, never leave them in the car unattended. I cannot believe the advice DCFS gave you about it! Never, ever is my answer! I mean no disrespect, and I do believe that everyone has the right to make their own parenting decisions, but like you say, when the law is so open-ended, it means they’ll come after you if you make a “wrong” decision, and it could be to the detriment of your children.

    • Maureen says:

      Thanks for your comment, Jessica. No where in my post did I say that I am about to let my 1st grader walk home alone from school. But, SOMEDAY the time will come when they will be allowed to walk by themselves. I have no idea when that day will come, but when it does I want to prepare myself and my kids so we are all safe and secure. Of course living in a big city carries a different set of rules and expectations, but I know my kids better than anyone else, and I trust that my instinct will tell me when the time is right to give them some wings to fly on their own.

      • Hannah says:

        Not to mention that your kiddos are all still buckled tightly in carseats, so there is no way they’re going to shift or move the car.

          • morgan o. says:

            However, as the wife of a police officer, I can’t tell you how many times he says DON’T EVER leave
            Your kids in the car for ANY amount of time…. He deals with stolen cars with children in them more than you think… Parents lock them, take the keys out…etc. just not worth leaving your most precious little people in there… Why risk it or potentially put your child through that kind of trauma.

      • Jessica says:

        Thanks for clarifying. I was not attacking, I just see so much in my profession…the world is a scary place. All we can do is teach our children the best we can and hope they learn from us. Yes, you absolutely know your child best, and as their parent, you make the best decisions you can for them and with them. I wholeheartedly agree.

  2. corinne says:

    I completely agree that the only person who can make the decision of whether or not your children are able to walk home alone is you and you husband. That being said, all studies and evidence point to the fact that even in a big city, today’s children are safer than we were growing up. There are so many factors to blame when it comes to the general misconception of safety nowadays, namely media. I know that my family is struggling with this exact issue right now-my eldest daughter is 11 and would.like to walk home alone. We also live in a big city, albeit a very safe neighborhood. My concern is that she would need to cross a 4 lane main East-West road with no lights or stop signs. As an adult, I’ve had difficulty doing this and for this reason alone, I am not ready to say yes. I think everyone can agree that parenting today comes with a whole new set of uncharted territories-none of which have readily available answers. I for one, welcome & enioy any discussion of these matters. It provides perspective and brings up points my family man have not considered. Thank you.

  3. Heather says:

    As a mother I’m extremely over protective of my daughter. Thank you for bringing light to this issue. I’m amazed how many parents leave their children alone and at such a young age. I was left alone as a younger child with my younger sister and I still can’t believe we’re both alive.
    With that said, I have to comment about Jessica and her comment. I don’t believe Maureen ever said she was going to let her daughter walk alone. I believe she stated, when the time comes, she’ll make sure to educate them.

  4. Holly says:

    My daughter was in 6th grade in 2004 when a classmate named Carlie Brucia went missing and was later found murdered. It changed my life. I have and had complete and total faith in my daughter and her maturity but I have no faith in our world. It changed the way I parent. I have never been able to be at peace with activities that I was able to participate in as a child. I could not let my children wait at the bus stop without spending my day wondering/stressing/panicking if they made it to school safely. I always worried that my inability to come to grips with the tragedy that we all felt and still feel would hamper my children. Luckily they have the sensitivity to know that my over-protective ways were not based on my trust in them. In a perfect world our children would be safe to learn and experience life in an environment where they did not meet with such tragedy. My daughter will turn 23 this year and teaches school in a remote Alaskan Native American Village. I am so blessed and fortunate to have a healthy thriving daughter and not a February goes by when I do not say prayers for Carlie and give thanks for my children. Life is so precious, and our children are our greatest resource. My greatest wish is that no other child have to suffer at the hands of a cruel human and that no other families have to find their way in a world minus their child. It is clear to me that you love and care for your family. Please know that I tell you this story because a bit of well thought out safety planning could ensure you and your family a measure of security. I wish you wisdom as you navigate these tough decisions and important choices. Warmly, Holly

    • Maureen says:

      Thanks for sharing your story, Holly. I absolutely agree with you that preparing our kids for time alone is the absolute best approach. Because, inevitably, SOMEDAY they will be on their own – it might be 12 for some and 18 for others. We all just have to trust our gut and trust each other. That is why I wanted to share my conversation with DCFS. The link about preparing kids to be alone is really helpful and I hope it is read by all.

  5. Jessie Jay says:

    My dad let my twin brother and I run the front office at his small business at age 10 in the summer. Yes, age 10, and we were alone. No cell phones to call Dad when he was out making deliveries. Customers routinely peeled off $1,000 in cash to pay their invoices. I answered the phones and manned the counter, my brother ran the forklift and helped load and unload trucks.

    Granted, this was in the early 1990’s, but still, we gained so much knowledge and self reliance by working at an early age. There were a few disasters, I remember: a water pipe burst in the store, the forklift brakes failed and it dented the fence. But we handled them on our own, and I look back with pride at my time spent working for my dad, and helping him get his business off the ground.

    I also started babysitting for my neighbors at age 12. My charges were 5,4, and 3 months! The parents trusted me completely. Again, no cell phones back then.

    One of my co-workers recently told me that he didn’t want to take a long vacation with his wife because he didn’t want to leave the kids alone for so long. I asked, “Isn’t your son in college?!” I was truly dumbfounded.

    I think that teaching children responsibility and self reliance at a young age is the best thing that you can do for them.

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