Zack Page (yellow shirt), sits with his mother Jessica, his sister Emily, David Taylor and James Gorchick. Page is 13 and regularly babysits his sister as well as the two boys.

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. –– Parents across the country constantly must decide how old is enough to be a baby sitter. Few states have laws on the issue, and those that do emphasize the importance of parental judgement. 

Last summer, Tim and Jessica Page were faced with that very problem when their then 12-year-old son, Zack, didn’t really want to go to the day care center with his younger sister, Emma. But his parents thought it was best.

“He pretty much went to help out,” Jessica Page said. “He’s pretty good about organizing activities and games.”

The experience – along with a few short-term baby-sitting assignments – convinced the couple that now 13-year-old Zack can be trusted to be in charge of the family’s child care this summer. Another couple agreed, so Zack is also keeping an eye on their son a few hours each week as well.

“They’re really responsible kids,” Jessica Page said. “They have their days when they fight, but when it comes to important stuff, they know they need to be responsible. She knows to listen to him.”

Pennsylvania, like most states, has no laws designating when children are old enough to be left home alone or in charge of younger children, said Oriana Poruban, resource and referral coordinator at Cambria County Child Development Corp. in Ebensburg.

“There is no magic number,” Poruban said. “It depends on things like the age and maturity of the child. How does the child respond to stress and unusual situations? Does the child obey basic rules at home? How long will the child be home alone?”

Both Tim and Jessica Page work near their Richland Township home, and Zack knows how to get in touch in the event of an emergency, his mother said. 

For his part, Zack said he doesn’t mind taking on responsibility for his sister and the other boy. It gives him some summer spending money, keeps him busy – and doesn’t require getting up early to go to day care.

“I like getting out and being active with them,” Zack said. “It gets in the way a couple times, but usually I find time between baby-sitting time.”

Only four states currently have laws regarding a minimum age for leaving a child home alone. Several others offer official recommendations, but many have no guidelines. Even those with specific minimum ages identified caution that children’s levels of maturity and ability to handle responsibility vary greatly.

Some families are forced to leave children alone because of limited affordable child care programs for older children.

When their after-school program closed before the end of school, there were a few days when Diamond Stevens had to trust 11-year-old daughter Rihanna to watch her younger sisters, 7 and 9, for an hour or two. There was not room for three school-age girls at the day care center where their 1-year-old sister is enrolled.

“At this point, I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Stevens said.

She’s not the only one.

“There is a whole lot of that,” said Bishop John McGauley III of Jefferson Memorial First Born Church in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which operates a summer meals program for children that also includes organized activities and lessons. 

Age is not the only factor in determining if a child is ready to watch younger siblings, said Betzi White, administrator of Cambria County Children and Youth Services.

“You might have a 10-year-old you can leave for a couple hours,” White said. “But you might have a 13-year-old you wouldn’t consider leaving alone.”

Although there are many guidelines and suggestions for determining the maturity of a child, the responsibility ultimately rests on the parents, White said.

Poruban said parents should take their responsibility very seriously.

“The problem with the law being vague is that you can follow all the guidelines and decide your child is mature enough, but if something happens, you can be charged with neglect,” Poruban said. “Ultimately, it is a parent’s responsibility for the child’s safety.”

Even states with defined home-alone age laws stress the parents’ responsibility.

In Maryland, for instance, the law says 8-year-old children may be left alone for short periods of time. But the Baltimore County Child Protective Services website notes:

“Generally, it is left up to the parent to decide whether a child who is at least 8 is mature enough to be home alone … Child Protective Services may become involved if a child of any age is left alone and is placed at risk of harm because he or she is unable to manage on his or her own. CPS may also become involved if your child’s baby-sitter or caretaker is unable to properly care for him or her.”

The scarcity of affordable and accessible programs to occupy older children when school is not in session is a difficult challenge for many working parents, says Michael Piecuch, Snyder County’s district attorney and chairman of the county’s Coalition for Kids.

Poruban understands the situation can be difficult for parents of children “on the cusp” of independence.

“They feel they are too old and don’t want to go to day care,” she said.

White has several suggestions for determining the maturity of a child, including if they know how to exit the home, where to go and who to contact in case of an emergency, if they are comfortable with the role and how many children they will be watching.

However, Poruban said, “The parent has to make all of those determinations."

Griffith writes for the Johnstown, Pennsylvania Tribune-Democrat.

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