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Frequently Asked Questions About Child Abuse and Neglect in Massachusetts

How young a child can be left home alone?

Is it illegal in Massachusetts to leave a child alone in a car?

How young a child can be left home alone?

Massachusetts does not set a specific age at which a child can be left home alone. In Massachusetts, such issues are decided on a case-by-case basis.

For information on abandonment and neglect, see MGL c.119 s. 39: Abandonment of a child under 10, and 110 CMR 2.00 which defines neglect as follows:

"110 CMR 2.00
Whenever used throughout 110 CMR, the following words shall have the following meanings, unless the context plainly requires otherwise....

Neglect means failure by a caretaker, either deliberately or through negligence or inability, to take those actions necessary to provide a child with minimally adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, supervision, emotional stability and growth, or other essential care; provided, however, that such inability is not due solely to inadequate economic resources or solely to the existence of a handicapping condition. This definition is not dependent upon location (i.e., neglect can occur while the child is in an out-of-home or in-home setting.)"

Other states have provided some helpful information for parents on the topic, however. See, for example, When to Leave Your Kids Alone from Florida.

See also, the Department of Children and Families web page on Reporting Child Abuse and Neglect. To report suspected child abuse, call 1-800-KIDS-508, or after hours, 1-800-792-5200.

Is it against the law in Massachusetts to leave a child alone in a car?

The only specific restriction we have been able to find in Massachusetts relates to day care providers. 606 CMR 7.10(5)(i) says: "As provided at 606 CMR 7.13(3)(j), a child must never be left unattended in a vehicle." The section referenced does not exist. The relevant regulation is 606 CMR 7.13(4)(j), which reads: "the driver of the vehicle takes attendance before and after each trip and conducts a complete vehicle inspection after every trip to ensure that children are not left alone in a vehicle at any time."

In Commonwealth v. Nebel, 59 Mass. App. Ct. 316, 321 (2003), the court explained that briefly leaving a child alone in a car was not child abandonment under MGL c.119, s.39:

"If this activity [leaving child alone in car], albeit ill-advised, were meant to be criminalized, the Legislature could have written a more extensive child endangerment statute. Compare 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 5/12-21.6 (b) (West 2002) ("There is a rebuttable presumption that a person committed the offense [endangering the life or health of a child] if he or she left a child 6 years of age or younger unattended in a motor vehicle for more than 10 minutes"). That the actions of the defendant were foolish and a lapse of judgment, as DSS observed, is self-evident. To equate abandonment with poor judgment, however, is a leap we are not prepared to take. The defendant left his daughter for an undetermined amount of time, traveling a relatively short distance away. There was no indication that he did not have the intention to return shortly; indeed the evidence was to the contrary. This cannot form the basis for a criminal conviction of abandonment."

Despite the lack of a specific prohibition, authorities still have the discretion to criminally charge caregivers under existing child endangerment laws.