Whenever I post about letting our kids be more independent, especially when it involves being on their own in public, people comment with fears of DCF (or CPS in other states, the agency that deals with child abuse and neglect): "did you hear about that family in Maryland?" The same thing happens when talking to other parents: "I think my oldest is ready to go to the park by themself, but I'm worried someone would call DCF on them." We're also worried about cars, or if they fall and get hurt, but DCF is a different kind of worry: it's not something where we can just use our best judgment, it's something where our best judgment could be called into question.

A neighborhood parent friend organized a meeting with a DCF representative for parents to learn more about the report handling process, how they make their decisions, and ask questions. There ended up being about thirty of us, I learned a good bit about how DCF approaches their work, and I'm glad I went.

Overall, my main takeaway was that this kind of situation, DCF deciding that a parent is neglecting their child by allowing them to play independently, is very little of what DCF spends their time on. This meant there was a bit of a mismatch in what the representative and the parents wanted to get out of the event. The representative wanted us to think about and avoid the kinds of issues that come up the most: sexting, getting into their parents' edibles, truancy, etc. But how much of "insufficient supervision in a public place" triggering very few DCF cases is due to parents being very cautious out of fear of DCF's response?

The parents were generally very interested in how DCF decides whether some level of supervision is sufficient, and what we got was that there are no hard rules or even guidelines, and that every situation is handled on its own with discretion and judgment. MA is not a state with age-based rules for any of this, and DCF doesn't give advice or comment on hypotheticals. I both see why the parents overall found this frustrating (I think my kid is ready to be at the park by themselves how do I know I won't get in trouble?) and why the system is that way (every kid is different, context matters enormously, human behavior is complex). It seems like what the DCF representative wanted us to take away was that we should be thoughtful and make the best decisions we could for our children, which on its face sounds really good! What gives me pause, though, is that in a culture where it's relatively rare for younger kids to be out on their own, I could still see a caseworker disagreeing about whether our kids were mature enough.

It seems to me that despite the potential downsides of issuing guidelines they would still be pretty helpful on balance. For example:

Children vary dramatically in what they are ready for at different ages, and there are no firm rules for when a level of independence is appropriate. Based on our experience with children and families across Massachusetts, however, here are some rough benchmarks. For each situation we give the age at which we'd guess the typical child can learn to handle it safely, along with ages for especially mature and immature children.

  • Staying home alone for 15min: ...
  • Staying home alone for 3hr: ...
  • Staying home alone overnight: ...
  • Crossing a low-traffic street: ...
  • Playing at a playground they can walk home from: ...
  • ...

We hope these guidelines give you an idea of what our expectations are going in before learning more the specifics of your situation.

On the other hand, when you look at states that do give guidelines you tend to see very conservative guidelines. For example, here's CT:

Experts believe a child should be at least 12 before he is left alone, and at least 15 before he can care for a younger brother or sister. These are the minimum ages. Not every child is ready then.

And NY:

Some children are responsible, intelligent, and independent enough to be left alone at 12 or 13 years of age. Likewise, there are some teenagers who are too irresponsible or who have special needs that limit their ability to be safe if they are left alone.

Having no guidelines is probably better than having very limiting ones, so maybe I should be thankful that MA DCF doesn't give any?

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As a foster-only parent in Massachusetts, I think I have much more interaction with DCF than most parents, albeit from a rather different angle.

In general, the parents’ concern here seems overblown to me — my perception is that DCF case workers will pretty much always start by talking to parents about their concerns if at all possible, and that they’re wildly unlikely to take any punitive action if a conversation about DCF’s expectations is enough to correct (from their perspective) the family’s behavior. If nothing else, the institutional incentives are structured this way; taking on another long-term case even just for monitoring purposes will add more work, case workers already have full loads (or more) as it is, and DCF’s funding (thus staffing) generally doesn’t scale per case.

What I’m seeing is that DCF doesn’t remove children from their homes lightly; if anything, they tend to wait a little too long in order to collect clearer evidence that removal is necessary. They also just don’t really have enough good places to put kids for it to make sense for them to remove kids whose parents are willing and able to cooperate with DCF guidance. Note that removal is not a purely administrative procedure: DCF generally needs to get a court order authorizing a removal before acting, and while they can act immediately in emergency situations, that will get reviewed by a court within days and is subject to a higher legal standard (so from what I see, case workers are hesitant to go that route if they see any other option). Case workers really do not want to risk getting their judgment overruled in court.

Which brings me to:

Having no guidelines is probably better than having very limiting ones, so maybe I should be thankful that MA DCF doesn't give any?

Yeah. I can see how sensible guidelines would be useful and reassuring, but I think we’re better off without the formal guidelines that would actually be created if such guidelines were established. I think there would be both political pressure toward more conservative guidelines (when people think about the appropriateness of minimum age standards, I think most people are primed to assess what is reasonable for most kids rather than what is reasonable for the most mature cohort thereof, and political discourse generally isn’t nuanced enough nowadays to draw such distinctions very well) and institutional pressure in the same direction (case workers don’t want anything that will make their jobs harder, and they totally will end up arguing with parents and their public defenders about whether guidance for more mature kids is applicable in their case when they have less mature kids), so I’m really not surprised to see that the states that do give guidance were heavily slanted in that direction.

my god, those CT & NY age guidelines are completely insane

Ugh, those conservative guidelines are so much more restrictive than what I experienced as a kid. I'm hopeful that by the time I'm a parent of 7-12 year old children who are ready for walk-to-park levels of independence that there will be some kind of satisfying technological solution. Seems like requiring the kid to wear a robust remote monitoring device while out alone would be a reasonable compromise. Such a device could have GPS tracking and video/audio sensors, and an AI system onboard to detect dangerous circumstances to alert your phone. A sufficiently capable device should be able to issue contextual reminders to the child about, for instance, crossing at crosswalks instead of jaywalking. 

We already have a pretty great tool for extending the potential independence of teenagers I think: electric bicycles. Having an electric bicycle (instead of just a normal bicycle) would have made me feel very satisfied in that age range. I did ride my bicycle ~4-5 miles to and from middle school & early high school, but it involved substantial hills and was too lengthy and exhausting a process to do in inclement weather or to be able to hang out at a friend's house after school and then get home in a timely manner for supper. And the hills made friends unwilling to visit me via bicycle. Giving us all electric bicycles would have solved the issue handily.

Paul Graham tweeted about it a while ago too, but came to the conclusion that it is because of cars.

I saw some articles a year back.

Reason: German Insurance Companies Demand Perilous Playgrounds So That Kids Can Learn About Risk

The Guardian: Learning the ropes: why Germany is building risk into its playgrounds

Here is the German insurer publication the above refer to:

Cars don't explain all of it, like the NY and CT guidelines of age 12 for being home alone

Agree. I think Paul Graham is mistaken about this.

like the NY and CT guidelines of age 12 for being home alone

That sounds almost like a sabotage.