Should a child be left alone? For small ones, the answer is fairly straightforward: They must have responsible supervision. But for older children, the first question parents must answer is whether their kids are ready to be left unsupervised.
"That's the most important thing to consider," said Helen Gorman-Collins, a county social worker. "The state statute really reads no child under 18 shall be left alone, but we know parents leave children younger than that alone, for practical reasons."
The Sheriff's Department considers 14 to be the age at which a child can be alone. There is a county ordinance that no child under the age of 14 years old can be left alone from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., according to Ron Wilkerson, a department spokesman.
Each police jurisdiction has a different age they consider old enough to be left alone, added Gorman-Collins. It's important that parents check with their local police department to learn the age requirement in their city. In the end, it's the officer who discovers a child at home who determines if that child is capable of being alone without getting into trouble.
"It really comes down to the individual child," said Kim Vander Dussen of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, California Branch. "There are 16-year-olds who can't be left unsupervised but 11-year-olds who can."
To determine if a child is comfortable alone, parents should ask their children how their time at home went. "I think the key is for parents to continue to communicate with their children," said Gorman-Collins. "They should ask them what it was like when they were alone. If they seem fearful or uncomfortable, then it's not a good time to leave them alone."
Older children should be given strict instructions about staying at home, including when they can open the door to a stranger.
"Give them situations like, 'What if somebody came to the door and said they have to leave something for the parents and wouldn't go away? Is that a situation to call for help?' Absolutely," Vander Dussen said.
UPS and the post office no longer require signatures for deliveries, except for registered mail. Utility workers do not have to check with anyone inside the house to read meters. "These are all ploys adults have used on children to gain entry," she said.
"Make sure you identify the people the child knows who can come in," she said. "Say something like, 'Your friend Jeannie is OK, but Paul and Cindy no. Grandma is OK.' "
Knowing the proper usage of the 911 emergency systems is important. In Orange County, 911 is answered by law enforcement, so if the emergency is a fire or health problem, the caller should tell the operator immediately.
"They don't need to say their name or address; the address comes up on the operator's computer screen. But if they say 'Fire, Mission Viejo,' then the call will be transferred to the appropriate fire department," said Emmy Day, an education specialist with the fire authority.
Children should also understand that they are going to be transferred and should not hang up the phone until the operator tells them they can, she added. Children need to understand that they must dial 9-1-1; some can be confused looking for an 11 on the dial.
Also, they should understand the importance of the 911 call. According to the county sheriff's office, crank 911 phone calls by children are a real problem.
Children should also know how to give directions to their home in the event of an emergency. And they should know their full name and the names of their parents.
Proper use of the phone is another topic parents should discuss with their children, according to Vander Dussen. If there is an answering machine in the house, let the child use it to screen calls. If there is no machine, the child should be instructed on what information he or she can give out.
"Never have them say they are home alone. Have them say Dad's busy and Mom's in the shower," Vander Dussen said. Never have the child confirm a phone number or address, she added.
Because children left unattended can become lonely and bored, some organizations have created phone friends. The city of Irvine has a number--(714) 262-9276--children can call between 2 and 6 p.m. to talk to volunteers. "Kids call mostly because they have run out of things to do," said Barbara Seifen, director of Irvine's Kid Phone.
Children can also call Western Medical Center's WestKids line--(714) 953-5437--for help with their homework, among other things.
When children get home, they should check in either with their parents or a designated neighbor. Conversely, parents should always tell their children where they are going.
A list of phone numbers for the child should include parents' work numbers, including any pager or cellular numbers, as well as the following:
* The phone numbers of the closest relative.
* The names of their doctor or health insurance company.
* For any fire, police or medical emergency: 911.
* Southern California Edison: An 800 emergency number will be in effect by late fall. In the meantime, emergency numbers can be found on each month's bill.
* Southern California Gas Co.: (800) 427-2200.