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EDITORIAL: Don’t trap responsible parents with out-of-touch child-neglect laws

The Illinois State Capitol building in Springfield. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

When a mother can be investigated by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services for letting her 8-year-old walk the family dog around the block in Wilmette, as happened last year, it’s clearly time to restore a little balance to state law.

A bill in the legislative hopper would take a sensible step in that direction by making it safe for parents to let their responsible 13-year-old babysit younger siblings. The bill has sailed through a House committee, and we hope it does so through the rest of the legislative process as well.

State Rep. Joe Sosnowski, R-Rockford, who introduced the bill, says a measure was rushed into Illinois law in 1993 in an overreaction to two St. Charles parents who left their kids, ages 9 and 4, at home alone while they left the country on a trip. The law says it’s child abandonment if a parent or guardian leaves a kid under the age of 13 for 24 hours without someone at least 14 right there keeping an eye on things.

It’s the strictest law in the country. Significantly, no other state has felt it necessary to follow suit. Many states have no similar law, and among those that do, none sets the age as high as Illinois. Kansas, for example, sets the age at six and North Carolina puts it at 8.

Not every 13-year-old is responsible enough to be left in charge of young siblings, but many are. It’s a decision that should be left up to parents, who know their children. As Sosnowski told us, “We got to have faith in our parents.”

As for situations where unsupervised children are causing problems or are clearly at risk, there are other laws authorities can turn to, Sosnowski said.

Sosnowski’s bill, which he has retooled from an earlier version last year, would lower the age at which a youngster can be left in charge from 14 to 12. It also seeks to define neglect more clearly, so that parents are protected from legal action when their kids travel to and from school or bike through the neighborhood, Sosnowski said.

Authorities trying to protect neglected children have a difficult job. But the laws written to protect those children should never ensnare responsible parents.

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