'Home alone age' question raised after recent tragedy

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INDIANAPOLIS - At what age is it appropriate to leave children home alone?

It's a pressing question, especially in light of a deadly shooting last week in Martinsville, and the legal answer in Indiana isn't clear.

An 11-year-old is accused of murdering his 6-year-old brother, while the two were home alone. Prosecutor in Morgan County haven't decided whether the parents will face charges too.

Legal experts say they could be charged with neglect or providing a child with a firearm, depending on the circumstances of the shooting.

"Maturity level of an 11-year-old boy, I can't see (the murder charge) going through, but certainly the parents should be liable for that," said parent Andy Southard.

"I would consider that to be child neglect myself," said parent David Ward.

The case in Martinsville raises questions for all parents. How young is too young to leave your child home alone? 10, 12, 15?

Parent Beth Hannan says she leaves her ten-year-old home alone, but only for a few minutes. "I think you have to look at the individual child and decide from there," Hannan said.

"It's a maturity thing. I think each parent has to know how mature their child is and whether they can trust them," Southard said.

"It's hard to say, to pinpoint an exact age," Ward added. "I know people who leave kids alone at the age of 12."

When it comes to state law, things aren't very clear.

"There really is no Indiana law that says how old a child must be before you can leave them home alone. It's really based on a case-by-case basis," said attorney Michael Schoen, with Indianapolis Legal Aid.

Morgan County has an ordinance allowing children ten and older to babysit. A handful of other states have minimum age requirements: 14 in Illinois, 8 in North Carolina. But according to Indiana law, it's up to mom and dad.

"I guess the recommendation is to use common sense," Schoen said.

Experts say the decision is crucial because if something goes wrong, parents can be held liable, whether for property damage or a crime.

Add firearms in the mix, and it gets even more complex.

"Significantly more complex," Schoen said. "In other cases, child protective services can become involved when they choose to become involved. So what you may think is perfectly acceptable, if they don't agree, they can become your life and you can be facing a great deal of trouble. In the law, you're the parent, and as such, you're responsible for everything your child does."

Which is why experts say parents need to be sure before leaving kids by themselves. They also stress if you do leave children home alone, make sure they're prepared and know what to do in an emergency.