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Neglecting Your Child: Form and Technique

December 15th, 2010  |  by  |  Published in Uncategorized  |  15 Comments

Little boy sleeping with teddy bearLast Wednesday, Jean and I ran into a little problem. That night, I had a long-scheduled dinner date with an editor in midtown—Totto Ramen, at last!—and had even arranged to meet the editor there at 9 p.m., just so Jean would have plenty of time to come home from work.

Alas, lately Jean’s had to stay at the office well beyond her usual 6:30, and she didn’t make it back to Brooklyn till, oh, let’s say 8:53 p.m. Meaning I couldn’t be in midtown by 9, meaning my editor decided to cancel the dinner. All in all, not a huge problem, but still a disappointment.

Still, it got me thinking: What if I’d just left the apartment at 8:30? Sasha, my 2-year-old, was already asleep in bed, and when she’s asleep, she’s very asleep. Jean would be home soon, so we’re talking about a 23-minute window of neglect. And even if Sasha did wake up crying, if either parent was home we’d almost certainly—99.9% of the time—just let her cry it out and go back to sleep. So, what was there for me to do in those 23 minutes except to simply BE there in case the apartment caught on fire? I’m not doing anything. Indeed, we’ve had a few babysitters who seemed totally disappointed when they learned that they’d be sitting more than babying. Well, at least we have cable. Why, I wondered last Wednesday, why couldn’t I just leave?

Let me be clear: I’m not going to leave Sasha alone at home. First of all, my wife would kill me. Second of all, my downstairs neighbors are total pyros.

Really, what I want to know is why I won’t leave Sasha alone. Is it because I have an irrational fear that the apartment will burn down in those 23 minutes? Or because I have a totally rational fear of prosecution for neglect?

To get an answer, I called up the Child Welfare Information Gateway, a kind of government clearninghouse (under HHS) for information about how to—and how not to—take care of kids. I put my question to a woman named Sandy: If my 2-year-old is asleep in a crib at night, is it illegal for me to go out for a drink, or just a terrible idea?

This, she said, is “a very, very gray area.” It’s not just that each state has different laws defining neglect. Most state laws look not only at actions but at intent. That is, did the parent intend to harm the child by neglecting it? This has a lot to do with class and poverty, so that poor families can’t be prosecuted if they can’t afford warm winter clothes or if a mother has to work nights while a kid is asleep at home.

So, if I—sorry, if some father wanted to leave the toddler alone asleep in a high-sided crib for a while, that probably wouldn’t land him in court.

Just to be sure, I looked up the New York State laws regarding abuse and neglect. Here’s the relevant part:


Citation: Soc. Serv. Law § 371

Neglected child means a child younger than age 18 whose physical, mental, or emotional condition has been impaired or is in imminent danger of becoming impaired as a result of the failure of his or her parent or other person legally responsible for his or her care to exercise a minimum degree of care:

  • In supplying the child with adequate food, clothing, shelter, education, or medical or surgical care, although financially able to do so or offered financial or other reasonable means to do so
  • In providing the child with proper supervision or guardianship
  • By unreasonably inflicting or allowing harm to be inflicted, or a substantial risk thereof, including the infliction of excessive corporal punishment
  • By misusing drugs or alcoholic beverages to the extent that he or she loses self-control of his or her actions
  • By any other acts of a similarly serious nature requiring the aid of the court
  • So, does ducking out put a sleeping toddler’s “physical, mental, or emotional condition” in “imminent danger”? Is ducking out a failure to exercise a minimum degree of care in providing supervision? I’m no lawyer, but I’d bet that as long as the house didn’t burn down, it would be hard to convince a jury of neglect.

    It’s still a bad idea, though, so don’t do it. Jerk.


    1. Paul M Bowers says:

      December 15th, 2010at 10:14 am(#)

      I thnik it’s clear it’s foolish to leave a toddler. But it leaves the question:

      At what age is it reasonable to leave a child alone? And for how long?

      My wife grew up in NYC and by age 9 was taking the subway home from school as a latch-key child.

      But I worry if I have to move my car around the block when our 10 year old is home.

    2. AH says:

      December 15th, 2010at 10:16 am(#)

      I would be sorely tempted, but always ask myself the question:
      How awful would I feel for the rest of my life if something happened while I wasn’t there because I did something more pleasant and convenient *for myself*?

    3. Matt says:

      December 15th, 2010at 10:19 am(#)

      Very true, @AH, but the chances are very, very, very small. We often take bigger risks without thinking about it (e.g., driving), and get all scared about things that are highly unlikely ever to happen (e.g., child abduction by strangers). Why is that?

    4. Matt says:

      December 15th, 2010at 10:30 am(#)

      @Paul: That’s another thing where it varies from state to state. Actually, only two states have laws about minimum ages at which kids can be left alone. (Check out the Child Welfare Info Center for details.) So, once again, it’s all about intent and judgment, something that’s going to be different for every kid (and parent) and which will be no fun at all once the court systems are involved.

    5. Nathan says:

      December 15th, 2010at 11:17 am(#)

      Thanks for looking into the law, Matt. The state does seem such a horrible way to referee any of these issues. And I wonder if the law has changed along with our own attitudes (as per the difference between Paul’s wife’s upbringing and his own instincts now).

    6. The Daddy says:

      December 15th, 2010at 1:19 pm(#)

      Wow, I’ve had a very similar conversation with my wife quite often (she actually sent me here, she thought I might have written it!)

      What is the “reasonable” risk in leaving a kid home alone when again, 99.9% of the time, they’re gonna just stay asleep. For awhile I never left the kid’s side to check the mail, but more and more, I ask the same question. I agree with the concern about “how would you feel the rest of your life if something were to happen?” but again, the “reasonable” risk is in question- we often take far greater risks in our day to day lives but regret the bigger whatifs, even if the probability is ridiculously low.

      I love your quantification of the real concerns- “because I have a totally rational fear of prosecution for neglect?” This is the reality of half my concerns, and I think for many others, if we’re honest with ourselves.

      Great post!

    7. beta dad says:

      December 15th, 2010at 3:23 pm(#)

      I have often wondered the same thing. I go out while the kids are napping and mow the lawn (every two or three months) or work on some project in the garage, and feel fine about it. But crossing the street makes me nervous, and I would never walk to the grocery store. My mom talks about leaving us kids in the crib while she ran out to do errands, and I’m a little scandalized.

    8. Gina says:

      December 17th, 2010at 3:08 pm(#)

      I am a single mom, and I have had to leave the kids alone for a few minutes on occasion when they were younger. There was a time once I was getting them ready for bed, it had been a long day, so I gave them a glass of milk before bed and realized there wasn’t milk for breakfast. I was not going to change their clothes, and drag them out just for milk.

      There was a small mom and pop store at the top of the street so I put them to bed and waited for them to fall asleep. Then I waited another 30 minutes just to be sure and I went to the store got a gallon of milk and came back. They were still asleep and never knew I left.

      Would I leave them for longer than 10 minutes or so? No way. Especially if they were awake.

    9. Jackie says:

      December 19th, 2010at 5:36 pm(#)

      I had this conversation with my sister while wondering if it was illegal to leave my 5 year old alone in the car as I ran into 7-11. She couldn’t even believe I was even thinking about it. We live in Los Angeles and spent over an hour a day on the freeway, where accidents happen every single day, and people are seriously injured & killed, yet, I can’t remember the last time I heard about a child taken from a locked car in full view of the parent. Yes, it happens, but rarely.

    10. Sudha says:

      December 26th, 2010at 9:46 pm(#)

      Have any of you read (okay, not sure what verb to use for a wordless picture book) Good Dog, Carl?

    11. Nathan says:

      December 27th, 2010at 2:22 pm(#)

      Haven’t read it. Is it worth reading?

    12. karen says:

      December 27th, 2010at 3:13 pm(#)

      Good dog, Carl, are pretty much the only words in the book. Otherwise, you must interpret, not read.

      My eldest child, when she was teeny, cried every time that book came out. Being that she spent the first three days of her life in an incubator in the Peds ICU, alone, this is hardly a surprise … she continues to have weird abandonment issues.

      The book is creepy. But my other two quite love it. Good dog, Carl.


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