Are You Breaking the Law — Babysitters, Car Seats, Helmets and More

Ever wonder exactly what the punishment would be if your child was caught without a helmet? Or what would happen if a mom was caught leaving the house while her toddler napped? Which brings up: when can you legally leave a child home alone or in the car as you dash into the store real quick? And what are the consequences for breaking these laws? Breezy Mama turned to lawyer Stacey Honowitz to find out the laws — and punishments — on the above examples, spanking, teen curfews and more.

What age can children be left home alone?

Parents always want to know when they will “get in trouble” with the law for various actions that they take with their children. One of the most interesting laws that we as prosecutors have to deal with is “what is considered to be neglect” when it comes to leaving kids alone, etc. Every state has their own laws about when it is legal to leave your child alone. In many states (such as Florida and I believe California) there is no “set” age. You as a parent must be able to judge whether or not your child can handle the task of being alone; You could have a physical or mentally challenged child who is 15 and cannot handle it because of their limitations,versus a twelve year old who has the ability to stay home, knows the emergency numbers if needed and knows how to exit the home if it becomes unsafe. Bottom line, you have to be the decision maker, and know your child’s abilities. And maturity level.

Let’s say a toddler was napping and a mom got tempted to dash to the grocery store to pick up a gallon of milk, would she be arrested for leaving her toddler home alone or what are the consequences for leaving a child home alone who is not mature?

The idea of leaving a toddler home sleeping while “dashing” to the store will never hold water if it gets to a prosecutor’s desk. Here is why: while you are gone certain things could happen in the house beyond your control. If the child awakes and nobody is there you never know what kind of danger that child could place themselves in. Now, if your child is sleeping and you step out front to walk the dog (literally front lawn for 5 minutes) that behavior is a lot different than you going to the store. What if something happens to you, and you can’t get home even though you thought it would be quick? Prosecutors could potentially file charges and depending on the jurisdiction it could be a misdemeanor or felony. Don’t be tempted, you could be in trouble.

Similarly, it’s always tempting to roll down the windows in the car and run real quick to say, pick up the dry cleaning with the kids left waiting in the car. What age is this legal?

Again, as you will see in most of these questions, every state has their own laws about leaving a child in the car while running an errand. I know where I live you cannot leave a child under the age of six (6) in an unattended vehicle in excess of fifteen minutes, or for any period of time if the motor vehicle is running or the health of the child is in danger. You could be guilty of either a misdemeanor or traffic infraction. Parents now could probably find their state laws on the computer. When in doubt, be smart, just take your child with you. Lots of things can happen when you leave any child alone.

What is the consequences for a parent if the police were to find a child or children under the legal age left alone in the parked car?

Here is the typical scenario. A person in the parking lot makes a call to the police that there is a child alone in a parked vehicle. The police come out, and interview the witness to find out how long they saw the child alone and to give any other pertinent information. The child will then be asked questions, and the police will wait there until the parent comes out. They will note the time they arrived, how long the child was watched by the witness and then how long it took for the parent to come out. Then the police can make the decision to arrest the parent based on several factors, i.e. age of the child, time away from the car, and condition the child was found in.

All children are now required to wear a safety helmet when riding a bicycle, correct? What is the consequence to a parent if a child is caught without a helmet by the cops?

Here is the the website to go to for all your answers on the helmet laws: It is the bicycle helmet safety institute, and they mention each jurisdiction and what the laws are. Every jurisdiction differs, but usually a violation results in a traffic infraction ticket.

Breezy Mama has previously covered that a child must be 13 years old before they can ride in the front seat of a car. Is this punishable by ticket? How much is the fine?

Any violation of a seat belt law, or moving violation law, such as children riding in the front seat prior to the right age will result in a traffic ticket, which will vary in amounts. Sometimes if you are pulled over for another infraction and the the police see the child in the front seat, you will receive a warning as they are aware that not all parents are familiar with the law.

We Breezy Mamas have learned that spanking is all sorts of wrong. But if a parent does spank, is it punishable by law?

Spanking is such a controversial issue. In the prosecutor’s office we are constantly faced with the issue of what is deemed appropriate under the law because some parents do choose to discipline in that fashion. When faced with photographs of bruises, welts, loop marks, scarring and basically any other injury, we deem it to be child abuse. Child abuse is of course punishable by law in every state, but again each jurisdiction dictates what they believe is appropriate corporal punishment. Most states now require that there be “evidence” of a spanking in order to prosecute, and the excuse of I was just disciplining my child won’t fly. Best bet, don’t touch, find another way to discipline.

Are car seats required to ride in a taxi?

Most taxis do not require a car seat. Think of all the people standing on the streets of New York getting in and out all day. A hired or registered car usually has an exemption in most states. If you decide though to call a car service ahead of time you can ask if they provide car seats and most of them with notice will provide one. Again, try to figure out the safest way to travel with a child.

Are there laws that apply for home school?

When your child is being home schooled, it is up to you to contact the school board where you live for all of the guidelines and restrictions. The local board will be able to address all of your questions and let you know what is proper when home schooling your child.

What is the youngest age for a babysitter, say if your oldest is 12 can she watch your younger kids alone?

One day you just need to ask yourselves whether this child is responsible enough to watch other children. It is not that hard to determine if the child shows a responsible side, and the ability to care not only for themselves but for others. Again, you will never hear a set age, and you won’t be prosecuted for leaving that twelve year old with younger kids if they can act with a level of maturity and know what to do in case of an emergency. Now I am not saying that they need to now how to perform surgery, but they must know contact numbers, police and fire rescue numbers and of course how to reach you. I would not suggest leaving an infant though with anyone other than an adult. Their can be circumstances with them that only an adult would be able to handle.

Is there an actual curfew for teens during school nights?

Local curfews are all the rage these days. If you are unsure if you have one, contact your local police department for the information. Better to know ahead of time rather than spending the day in court because you have violated it. Punishments could range from community service to a fine.

When does your child not need a car seat legally?

Every state has what are called “Child Restraint Requirements” and they can usually be found in the the traffic laws. Where I live, if the child is 5 years or younger there are specific rules and regulations. All children must be protected by a crash tested, federally approved child restraint device. Translation.. car seat, either a separate one or one that is a vehicle manufactured integrated child seat. At some point the law will allow the seat belt to be used, usually ages 4-5.

What about riding in the back of a pickup truck? When there’s a shell? And what if there’s not a shell?

A pickup truck with or without a shell is considered a motor vehicle and must adhere to the same rules, so if the child is not restrained you are looking at not only a traffic infraction, but putting your child at risk.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Bottom line to all these questions is use your common sense. That means, restrain your child in a car, don’t use corporal punishment, use good judgment in who you leave your child with, and never leave them in the car alone. You should not be worried about your own liability, you should worry about your child’s safety.

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About Stacey
Stacey Honowitz is a twenty-two year veteran of the State Attorney’s Office, seventeen years dedicated to the Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Unit where she is currently serving as a supervisor. She is also a frequent legal commentator who has provided legal analysis for Larry King Live, CNN Headline News, Good Morning America, Dateline NBC, CBS News 48 Hours, MSNBC, CNBC, as well as Fox News and Court Television. She has prosecuted several high profile cases in south Florida and is also a guest lecturer who speaks about child sex abuse, the sensitive nature of these cases, the navigation of the criminal justice system and the importance of frank and open communication with children about this important and difficult subject matter. She has provided important information for several years to both parents and children on the issues of child molestation and continues to send the message that the importance of reporting the abuse is the first step in healing. To contact Stacey, email:

To purchase her book, My Privates are Private, click here.

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  1. Michelle says:

    Thanks for the reminder about kids riding in the front seat. I am so surprised every school morning when I see dozens of elementary age kids arriving to school in the front seat of their parent’s cars.

  2. Teresa Kaestner says:

    Thanks for all of the great info. Sometimes parents just need to remember “common sense” when thinking about seatbelts, helmuts and front seat riding. I am a staunch opponent against corporal punishment. To me all it shows is you as the caregiver are just bigger and stronger. My parents never made us afraid of them and I don’t want my kids afraid of me. As a Pediatric Nurse I’ve seen the effects of a parent using physical punishment of many types on a child. Thanks again for the great info. Terri

  3. Its important for parents to ask these questions before leaving babies on their own whilst nipping to shop a fire kills it doesnt bear thinking about if child is unsupervised

  4. I have a question/concern. I have a 22 month old at home that is very active. Like every toddler he likes to climb, jump around, run….. My stepson is 13 and is very good with him but I do not trust that in an emergency he would know what to do. He does not know how to change a diaper. He does not know the difference between being cranky due to hunger vs. being tired. And it is not fair that he should be held responsible to watch his 22 month old brother. He is far more interested in the computer and video games.

    With that being said, my husband feels it is appropriate to leave them alone while he goes to the gym or runs errands. I have asked him to not do this time and time again but he does not listen or respect my wishes. He has lied to me about leaving them but has gotten caught by me. I am just wondering, am I being irrational?

  5. Hi CD,
    As Stacey mentions, the child needs to be responsible enough and know what to do in an emergency. It sounds like you feel your son is not ready to watch a child, so I would follow your instincts.

  6. Thank you for the information above. I live in Florida with a 9 yr old child who is developmentally delayed. She has slight autistic tendencies, but has not been diagnosed with such. Her maturity level is more like a 5 yr old and she has special help at school every day and takes Speech for her communication skills. I just found out my ex-husband has been leaving her alone at night in a hotel where he lives so he can rent rooms to people. I pulled in to get her last week and he was pulling up on a motorcycle while she was locked in the room by herself. She has no phone access and doesn’t really understan cause and affect. I am terrified. I have an attorney filing a petition for no overnight visits, but he can still leave her uring the day. Any feedback out there?
    Thank you,

  7. sherbourgeois says:

    my son is 12 yrs old and i am constantly having to ground him for missing curfews,bad behavior at school, rude/defiant behavior towards me and/or adults at school, etc etc etc…Recently I sent him to his room and told him he was grounded, approx an hr later i went to room to check on him and he had jumped out window and gone to friends house, i then called him on his cell phone and demanded he come home and his response was ok but how long am i grounded now?My question as a parent is….Is it illegal to lock 12yr old in room as long as parent within ear shot at all times and of course lets him out for meals/drinks and bathroom?I am askin due to upon my sons return to house that day he refused to go to room, i had to take him by shoulders and walk him into his room and then he kept coming out to argue his case…

  8. MaileySmith says:

    As much as possible, I don’t want to leave my daughter at home alone, but if I did that I’ll make it sure she can reach me easily. I would like to share what I have read it talks about kids personal security these might help a lot of mothers like me.

  9. my girlfriends roommate has a toddler and she works. the father of the child told her that he could call the cops for abandoning their child if she left him in my girlfriends care. is that considered child abandonment or babysitting?


  1. […] a sleeping child to run to the store, one can be charged with neglect. Child Abuse & Neglect Laws That Apply to Parenting | __________________ Don't be fooled because she may seem like your typical selfish, […]

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