Nicole Gainey arrested for letting son play in park alone: Overreaction or law?

Nicole Gainey of Port St. Lucie, Fla., was arrested Tuesday for allowing her 7-year-old son to play alone near their home. It re-kindles the debate, when and where is it OK for kids be alone?

Florida mom Nicole Gainey was shocked at being arrested this week for allowing her son, age 7, to go alone to a local park and remain there unattended. 

While parents’ opinions about at what age a child should be left home alone or be allowed to wander without supervision may vary, state “latchkey” laws and common sense might help settle the argument. While many states have their own web sites devoted to explaining these laws, one business (that sells "call reassurance" services for kids) compiled a list of links for each state.

Parenting is in the eye of the beholder, and that can be a very sobering thought to many of us who have great confidence in our child’s ability to self-govern.

But as this case illustrates, we are not alone in parenting our children. Often, neighbors, law enforcement, and the people employed at places where our children might roam unattended feel responsible for an unattended child and thus become involved in our child’s safety as well.

This seems to be the case in point with Ms. Gainey and her son.

According to The Examiner, Ms. Gainey, 34, was arrested and charged with child neglect Saturday and was released the same day after posting a $3,750 bond. She says her bondsman told her that his parents would have been arrested daily if child neglect laws were enforced in his neighborhood. 

On the way to the park, the boy regularly passes a public swimming pool, reports West Palm Beach WPTV Channel 5.

According to media reports, “An arrest affidavit regarding the case revealed that lifeguards noticed the little boy sitting alone outside the pool area Saturday afternoon. They reportedly had seen him around the pool unsupervised on about five previous occasions. Concerned about the boy's safety, the lifeguards notified police of the situation.”

The police report also says they warned the mother that several sex offenders live in the area.

According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, compiled by the US Department of Health and Human Services, “Neglect is frequently defined as the failure of a parent or other person with responsibility for the child to provide needed food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision to the degree that the child’s health, safety, and well-being are threatened with harm.”

However, according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services web site “No consistent community standards exist describing when and under what circumstances children can be left alone or in the care of other children.” 

The site also outlines that state laws do not define specify ages when a child can be left at home alone (not even including away from home) and refers people to “local, county or State policies or ordinances that address this special topic.”

Calling our local police department and speaking with an officer who asked not to be named, I learned that there are no laws governing a home alone age and only the same nebulous neglect outline that is in the Child Welfare Gateway definition.

Therefore it all comes down to a judgment call by both the parent and local police, or welfare agencies to decide if a parental decision was acceptable or arrest-worthy.

After scoping out numerous child welfare web sites and speaking with our local police officer, I came up with a list of questions parents might want to ask themselves before allowing a child to either remain home alone as a “latchkey” kid or wander the neighborhood unattended.

  • Is your child well versed in what to do in an emergency?
  • Does your child obey rules and make good decisions?
  • How long will your child be left home alone or roaming unattended outdoors?
  • Will the child be alone in daylight or at night?
  • What kind of traffic is involved in the areas surrounding the child’s roaming range?
  • Have you set limits on where the child may roam unattended?
  • If a child is being left home alone, will the child need to fix a meal?
  • How often will your child be caring for him or herself?
  • How many children are being left home alone? (Children who seem ready to stay home alone may not necessarily be ready to care for younger siblings.)
  • Is your home or the area the child will be alone free of hazards? I.e. is there a pool or body of water involved and can the child pass a lifeguard’s swim test?
  • How safe is your neighborhood?
  • Have you spoken with those in charge of the park, community center or pool to get their input on age restrictions and to learn existing regulations?

After considering these questions, what else might you add to the list? 

Parenting is not something that does well in a vacuum. There is a lot to be said for having the help of a village to raise our children. 

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