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When are children old enough to be left alone without adult supervision?

By Hannah Leone • Dec 22, 2017 at 2:00 PM

While a comedic “Home Alone” sequel played in movie theaters across America, David and Sharon Schoo took a nine-day vacation in Mexico, leaving their 9- and 4-year-old daughters alone for Christmas in their St. Charles-area home.

In 1992, the situation drew international attention. And, 25 years later, it continues to resonate in legal and child welfare circles where experts disagree on the effectiveness of a state law inspired by the case that attempts to define when children are old enough to be left alone without adult supervision.

“It was a made-for-media story because of the movie,” recalled Chicago-based lawyer Diane Redleaf, referring to “Home Alone 2,” which happened to feature a cameo by Donald Trump.

However, the Schoos’ crime was not clear. Illinois law at the time defined criminal child abandonment loosely, and Illinois’ Department of Children and Family Services only called it abandonment if the parents didn’t plan to come back.

Seeing a void in criminal statutes, lawmakers responded by making Illinois one of the first states with specific rules for when a child can be left alone.

Critics call it an overreaction, while its advocates maintain it guides parents and protects children from poor parental judgment.

“The facts were just so egregious,” said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who was a state representative at the time. “The parents were leaving the country and thought having a 9-year-old watch a 4-year-old was (OK).”

Dart co-sponsored legislation, which in 1993 changed the legal definition of child abandonment to intentionally leaving a child younger than 14 alone for 24 hours or longer.

In 1992, before most people used cellphones or the internet, the Schoos left without giving their daughters a way to reach them. They provided frozen food, cereal, and a note warning the girls not to eat too much while they remained in the family home on Nancy Lane in Kane County.

When a fire alarm went off, the girls ran to a neighbor who called authorities. Child welfare agents took the girls into custody just two days into the parents’ trip.

Unaware of what was happening at home, the Schoos were arrested upon their return to O’Hare International Airport a few days after Christmas. A crowd of hungry newspaper and television reporters documented the scene while onlookers shouted “Scrooge!” and other comments at the couple.

A Kane County grand jury indicted them on charges including felony abandonment, neglect, endangerment and cruelty to children. They avoided trial through a plea deal and were sentenced to two years’ probation.

The Schoos may have faced harsher punishment under the law Dart helped write.

The stricter law, however, also has led to unfair charges against parents who were just trying to get by, say advocates such as Redleaf, who founded Family Defense Center. Criminal statutes are extremely broad and leave a lot of discretion to the courts, Redleaf said. She called the Schoo case an extreme example that shouldn’t be the basis of laws.

“It was unfortunate because it is not a representative case,” Redleaf said, “and I felt it was a bad thing, becoming the face of the issue of parents’ rights to make decisions about their children being alone.”

Illinois is one of only a few states with criminal laws dictating a minimum age for leaving a kid home alone, according to a 2013 childwelfare.gov report. In Oregon, the minimum age is 10, and in Maryland, a child must be at least 8 to be left in a house or car. Other states have looser recommendations, including several stating a child welfare agency may investigate cases involving kids as old as 12.

In a 2015 report, the Family Defense Center highlighted the case of a woman with three young children who once left her 8-year-old child home to watch her 16-month-old for 20 minutes while she drove her middle child to school. Though she had no prior history of leaving her kids unattended, she was indicated for inadequate supervision, according to the report. Illinois Appellate Court judges later ruled that child welfare workers misapplied its policies when labeling her neglectful, according to the report.

The consequences of being reported can be serious. Parents can also be cited for neglect without a court process and the information can be disclosed to employers and background checkers for years.

The state’s Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act contains guidelines that are supposed to help distinguish between inappropriate parenting and actual abuse or neglect.

Redleaf called Illinois law “overbroad, vague and harmful.”

The statute gives too much discretion to people who know less than parents do about what’s good for their kids, said Redleaf, now legal director for the National Center on Housing and Child Welfare.

Dart cited the extreme nature of the Schoo case as a reason why the law needed to change.

“There was never this notion this was going to be a law that completely changed the way family structure operated,” Dart said. “The purpose was when we had these extreme cases, there would be potential criminal penalties available.”

Looking back, Redleaf said it felt futile to challenge lawmakers while the bill was working its way through Springfield.

“We didn’t have a strong enough force to resist it,” Redleaf said. “When there are big stories like that it’s challenging, because legislators want to do something … to broaden the authority of the child welfare system to intervene.”

Though the 1993 law clearly states a child must be 14 to be left alone for a full day, it does not say how old a child must be to be left alone for a shorter period of time and contains a complex and subjective set of criteria for determining whether a minor was left without regard for health, safety, or welfare, or for an unreasonable amount of time.

“The law we currently have is based on the Schoo case, and the examples I have written about are cases where that legislation has been used to go after people it shouldn’t have been,” said Jeffery Schwab, a staff attorney for the Liberty Justice Center, which is affiliated with conservative think tank the Illinois Policy Institute.

Schwab described the Schoos as a black-and-white case that caused legislators to create a law he thinks is both too harsh and too gray.

“The punishment and prosecution would be a lot easier, better, but those aren’t the typical cases we have,” Schwab said. “So maybe the law is better now for that circumstance, but is it better for the circumstances of hundreds of other people who are getting indicted for letting their kids play in a park? I don’t think so.”

Afraid of doing the wrong thing and getting in trouble, parents overprotect, Redleaf said.

Looking at his own experience raising four children, Associate Judge William Parkhurst said he used to think his wife was overprotective by using trusted relatives as sitters and waiting until his oldest was 14 or 15 before being allowed to stay home alone, even for short periods.

“Working in juvenile court in neglect and abuse, I think she was absolutely right,” he said. “I think my wife has by far been more protective than the law.”

The mission of criminal court is different from family court’s goal to reunite families when it’s safe or to find children a permanent home. Criminal court is about protecting the public and having appropriate punishments for those who break the law.

From his understanding, the Schoo case affected only criminal statute, not the juvenile court act.

“I think the way laws are set up, is they are not written to be easy to understand,” Parkhurst said. “It’s written so once you understand it, it’s not easy to (be) misunderstood. In that way I think it is a very good law.”

David and Sharon Schoo gave up parental rights in 1993, when their daughters were living with a foster family. Sharon Schoo died in April 2003, according to Kane County Coroner Rob Russell. Herbert Hill, who represented the Schoos, said he is not in touch with David, who could not be reached for comment. A court-appointed attorney for the daughters, who would be adults today, declined to talk about the case. They also could not be reached.

The house on Nancy Lane in Campton Hills Township is listed for short sale at $230,000.

Had the Schoos lived in a less-affluent area, their story may not have drawn as much attention, Redleaf said. But their case does exemplify the line, which Dart said his bill also tried to draw, between neglect and poverty. The former is punishable; the latter may just require help.

Kane County CASA is trying to be more proactive about working with community partners to educate the public about reporting issues and help parents understand what’s OK, said executive director Gloria Kelley.

“In the last 25 years we have made great inroads at people being more the ears and eyes in their community and doing what’s right for the kids,” Kelley said.

Leaving an 8- and 10-year-old with cellphones at home to go to the grocery story doesn’t seem like neglect, but if the parent was gone for three hours during a storm, that’s closer to abandonment, Kelley said.

As a parent, Kelley said she couldn’t imagine leaving a 14-year-old alone overnight. But a single parent working several jobs might leave a teen at home thinking they’re doing the best they can with the resources they have, Kelley said.

“I think if people use common sense 99 percent of the time and follow the law they are generally going to be fine,” Parkhurst said. “The law is meant to be practical and not trip people up intentionally.”

Public policy issues, such as access to affordable childcare, are separate considerations, Parkhurst said.

Kelley said she thinks the law should include more specific age-related information parents can use.

“One thing we see a lot within our court system is parents are lacking that basic skills set of, ‘Should I leave my child at home, should I not leave my child at home?’” Kelley said.

Kelley likened the issue to other hot topics such as religion and abortion.

“There could be a right answer for you but a wrong answer for somebody else,” Kelley said. “And at the end of the day it’s the lawmakers who are going to have to decide.”

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(The Aurora Beacon News is a publication of the Chicago Tribune.)

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©2017 Chicago Tribune

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