Leaving Children at Home Alone: Child Abuse?

— Criminal Law attorney, Harold Eustache discusses these issue in his “For the Record” video.

Scenario:

School is out and a parent is at home with the two children, ages eight and eleven. This parent receives a call from the employer one morning. The parent is needed at work, unexpectedly, because a co-worker called in sick. Normally, this parent would arrange for child-care or adult supervision while at work. However, the short notice has made it impossible to procure those arrangements. Begrudgingly, the parent instructs the children about how to contact them at work, food during the day, emergency procedures, and the rules of the home before leaving for an eight-hour work shift. The retail store where the parent works, is located approximately ten miles away from the home. During the day, the children begin to scream and yell over who gets the next turn on the video game. A neighbor hears the screaming and calls the police. When the police arrive, they find the children unattended for over five hours but unharmed. The police summon the parent to return home and subsequently charge the parent with misdemeanor child abuse.

What Happens Now?

For many North Carolina parents, the above hypothetical scenario is all too real, and for many North Carolina courts, this scenario is an everyday occurrence. Many of our clients at Greenwood Law ask us several questions surrounding this sort of predicament: Will I be charged with a crime for leaving my children home, unattended? There are two North Carolina statutes, in which we see adults charged for leaving children unattended—Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor and Child Abuse.

Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor (NCGS 14-316.1) 

This is a North Carolina law that is typically charged when an adult over eighteen (18) aids a minor (under 18) in being involved in an action that could lead to the minor’s delinquency. It is important to note three things here.

  1. The age in which a person is considered a juvenile has changed in North Carolina from under sixteen to under eighteen as of December 1, 2019.
  2. A juvenile does not actually have to be an adjudicated delinquent or even have a juvenile petition filed for an adult to be charged under this statute.
  3. The standard for neglect under the Department of Social Services is not the same as delinquency as understood under juvenile law

It is typical to see this type of charge for conduct, such as an adult who is charged with misdemeanor larceny for taking clothes at a store while asking a minor to conceal the merchandise, an adult buying alcohol for a minor, or an adult ensuring a high school student skips class and smokes marijuana instead of attending school. The key issue here is the adult is generally aiding the juvenile in behavior that is delinquent.

With regard to whether an adult can be charged under the statute simply for leaving a child at home unattended, there are some jurisdictions that do charge for such conduct under this statute. However, a parent or guardian simply leaving a child unattended does not mean that the parent is knowingly aiding the minor in delinquent behavior. Additionally, while the child could participate in activities that would be considered delinquent while unattended, the mere fact that a child is unattended would never lead to that child being an adjudicated delinquent, simply based on being alone.

That being said, the statute does address neglected children. However, the standard set by this statute is extremely subjective. A court would address whether in its opinion the parent did not provide proper care, supervision, or discipline, or whether the parent abandoned the child. In these cases, issues such as conditions surrounding the child (i.e. location, weather conditions, etc.), length of time apart, age of the child, and distance from the child all play a role in the court’s determination.

Misdemeanor Child Abuse (14-318.2)

The Misdemeanor Child Abuse statute is by far the most commonly used statute by law enforcement for the conduct of children being left at home by parents or guardians. The statute lays out certain elements. To be charged with child abuse in North Carolina, there must be probable cause that a person who is a parent or guardian of a child (under the age of sixteen), does one of the following:

    1. Inflicts physical injury,
    2. Allows physical injury to be inflicted, and/or
    3. Creates or allows to be created a substantial risk of physical injury by other than accidental means

The vast majority of instances in which a person is charged for leaving children at home, such as the hypothetical situation above, fall under the “creates or allows to be a created a substantial risk…” portion of the statute. The issue in these matters does not revolve around whether there is some risk inherent in leaving a child at home. Instead, it focuses on whether the act of leaving a child unattended creates a “substantial risk of physical injury.” The Courts in North Carolina have routinely tackled the question of what would be considered “substantial” and what would not. At Greenwood Law, we understand how to fight for anyone charged under this statute.

Let’s look at the above hypothetical in which the parent is charged with Misdemeanor Child Abuse and let’s presume it was under the element in which the law enforcement officer believed that there was a “substantial risk of physical injury.” In this scenario the officer would have to believe the act of leaving a child unattended is the substantial risk. Given both the plain language of the statute and the appellate court’s interpretation of this law, the standard applied by the officer does not seem in accordance with North Carolina law. However, this does not mean that everyone walks free. We have seen people in court be both charged and convicted of this exact behavior.

Is there an age requirement as to when a child can be left home unattended? 

One of the important questions frequently asked by our clients is whether there is a minimum age in which a child can be left at home under the law. While many states in the U.S. do have specific laws around this question, North Carolina does not. When the courts have tackled this question, it has typically used a totality of the circumstances approach. Courts take into account:

    • How far away is the parent from the child who are unattended?
    • How old is the child/children?
    • Are there any substantial risks in the home? (Unlocked gun, fire hazards, etc.)
    • How long are the children alone?

These questions and more are taken into account when evaluating whether or not the act of leaving a child unattended would amount to either neglect or abuse. If you have questions regarding whether to leave your child(ren), please contact Greenwood Law to discuss your options.

How do we tackle these challenges at Greenwood Law?

At Greenwood Law, we frequently handle cases in which children are left unattended and parents are charged with child abuse or contributing to the delinquency of a minor. These cases can be extremely serious, as they have collateral consequences with employers, custody, and many other aspects of life. We know how to advocate for our clients in the court system and among the prosecutors in order to ensure the best possible outcome. If you are charged with a crime like this, please contact Greenwood Law at 336-794-6138 or visit our online contact form and we will work hard to obtain the best possible outcome for you.