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Age not the only factor in deciding when to leave kids home alone

It’s a tricky thing for parents to decide for the first time when it’s OK to leave their kids home alone.

Some states have laws regarding the minimum age a child must be, varying from 8 to 14.

In Nevada, it’s not so simple.

“It’s not an in-stone law,” said Metropolitan Police Department Officer Marcus Martin, an abuse and neglect specialist . “It’s as gray as it can be.”

If an officer is called to a home for reported child neglect, he has to make a judgment call on whether the child is safe to be there alone.

Things an officer will look for include the cheerfulness of the child.

“If you have a kid at home that’s scared to death, that’s not great,” Martin said.

Also the mind-set or maturity of the child is considered. Eight years old might seem young, but if he knows how to dial 911 and 311, reach the parents and how to cook, it’s not completely unreasonable for him to be there.

The home also needs to be fit for a child. It should be clean, there should be food in the refrigerator and air-conditioning or heat, depending on the time of year.

Martin said he has horrifying cases etched in his mind from house calls he’s made.

“I’ll never forget,” Martin said. “There was a baby in diapers crawling around on the floor that was covered in feces. No air conditioning, and the mom never showed up. How could you leave a toddler crawling on the floor in the summer with no A/C ? It doesn’t matter if there had been food.”

In another case Martin worked, parents left their apartment to go gambling one evening and left no food or instructions for their children.

The kids actually called the police for help.

“I can still see the images in my head,” Martin said. “The looks on their faces were so forlorn.”

Martin said the department had 33 reported supervision cases in April and 34 in May, which is nearly average for most months.

Attorney Adam Stokes of Half Price Lawyers said his firm seems to handle more cases involving kids during the summer.

Depending on the severity of the case, a parent found guilty of child neglect could end up being sent to prison or having the child taken away.

A parent may receive “a slap on the wrist,” including counseling, probation and other requirements, if the judge determines that a parent is truly sorry, fit to keep the child and that the child is in no significant danger.

“The judge will do what is in the best interest of your child,” Stokes said. “It’s an issue of reasonable age and maturity. It’s really a case-by-case basis.”

Even leaving for 10 minutes while your child is sleeping is a huge risk, Stokes said. He has seen it happen.

He has represented clients who drove around the corner to buy cigarettes at night while their 3-year-old was sleeping. The child woke up, opened the front door and wandered into the street looking for Dad.

In other cases, a few seconds can be all it takes.

Stokes recalled a case where an unsupervised baby crawled into the back yard and fell in a pool, suffering permanent brain damage before being rescued.

Attorney Heather Zana is a former pro tem family court judge who oversaw these kinds of cases.

She said the courts have become more strict over the years concerning these neglect cases and that 13 has become the unofficial reasonable age in most cases.

“Most of those were parents that just don’t understand they can’t leave, even for 30 minutes,” Zana said.

Police receive most of their reports from concerned neighbors. Martin recommends that anyone who suspects child neglect call Child Protective Services at 399-0081 or the police at 311.

Contact View education reporter Jeff Mosier at jmosier@viewnews.com or 224-5524.

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