Child abuse and neglect are serious crimes that can lead to prison time, fines and even the loss of your kids. New York laws are largely designed to try to protect children. Sometimes, however, it may be unclear where parents’ freedom to make decisions about how to raise their kids ends and criminal behavior begins. That’s particularly true when it comes to leaving children home alone.

Child Abuse and Child Neglect

New York law generally defines child abuse as situations that are not accidents in which a parent or person legally responsible for the child’s care inflict certain injuries on the child or allows those injuries to be inflicted on the child. The injuries that may warrant a child abuse charge include those that could cause death or serious disfigurement, as well as other serious impairments. A person who causes or allows a child to be subjected to a substantial risk of such injury also commits child abuse, even if the child isn’t actually injured.

State law additionally makes it a separate crime for child neglect or maltreatment. Like other forms of negligence, the law holds parents and legal guardians responsible to live up to a certain “standard of care.” A parent or guardian who allows a child to be injured or put in imminent risk of physical or emotional harm by failing to live up to that standard can be charged with child neglect.

Leaving Your Child at Home Alone

Child neglect, like other forms of criminal negligence, is based largely on the specific circumstances of any given case. The question, generally, is whether specific actions or inaction put a child in harm’s way to an extent that it amounts to criminal neglect.

A common question for some parents, child safety advocates, cops and courts is: When can children be safely left at home alone? There’s no specific age at which New York law says it’s OK to leave kids at your home by themselves. Instead, the decision depends largely on the specific situation, including the child’s maturity and physical ability. Some children may be sufficiently responsible to take care of themselves alone as early as 12 years old. Others may still require adult supervision well into their teenage years.