Oklahoma's latchkey kids: How young is too young to be left alone?

Every day, children are walking home or staying home alone. Oklahoma is one of several states that has no age requirement for latchkey children. That leaves the decision and the responsibility on parents.

Antonio and Alonzo are 8 and 10 years old. They do everything together, including walking home alone each day and staying there by themselves with the door locked until their mom gets home from work.

“The rule is when they come in the house, they are supposed to call me. That way I know they are in the house,” said Estrella "Star" Hutch.

If the boys don’t call, then mom does. It is not a perfect situation, but Hutch says she did her research before allowing them to walk a mile from the bus stop.

“In the very beginning, when I first started doing it, it made me nervous. But once we got the routine down and you know, I know what time they are home by every day, then I started feeling more confident," Hutch said. "They enjoy it. Sometimes they get upset when I pick them up from the bus stop. They're like, ‘We wanted to walk home today.'"

Antonio and Alonzo are far from unique. The state of Oklahoma doesn't say how young is too young for a child to stay at home alone -- to be a so-called "latchkey kid." And many working parents here have no other choice.

“Children and families differ so much, you can't just have one law that applies regarding the age because children are so different,” said Rose Turner of the Child Abuse Network.

As a child welfare expert, Turner says parents need to consider whether a child is mature enough to lock the door, to not open it for strangers and to not get into trouble.

“I’ve had situations where children were left home alone and shouldn't have been left alone or in charge and tragedy has hit," Turner said. "A fire. Kids didn't really know how to get out. Only some of the kids got out."

She says children under 6 should never be left alone. But years ago, the Jones brothers, who are now in high school, spent many nights by themselves.

“When he was in pre-K and I was in kindergarten, our mom, she worked the nights,” said Kindrick Jones, now a high school senior.

They had no problems, largely because their mother set very strict rules about things like using the stove. Looking back, they feel the experience helped them grow.

“We were tiny. We had to climb cabinets to get our snacks and stuff, broke a few dishes," Jones said. "But we learned from our mistakes and made us more of big kids and men, that's all it did."

In Tulsa, some kids play ball after school at the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club until their parents get off work. It keeps them safe and occupied, but the man in charge of this program believes Oklahoma should set a limit on when a child is too young to be a latchkey kid.

“I think we are letting the parents off the hook as far as parenting, saying such and such because we don't have that law,” said Jamar Giddings, who said he knows some children come to his programs for activities and food.

Hutch, a working mom, says she doesn't want the state telling her what to do.

“People should have the right to take care of their responsibilities," she said. "You have to do what you have to do. I know I was a latchkey kid, and I grew up just fine."

The State of Oklahoma does have guidelines on the issue. Visit Guidelines for Children Left Home Alone for more information.

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