Erin Lee Macke, 30, was charged with four counts of child endangerment and one count of making a firearm available to a person under the age of 21, according to Johnston police.
The Des Moine Register/Wochit

One of the tough calls parents make is when to leave their children home alone.

“It’s one of the hardest things,” said Amy McCoy, spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Human Services. “When is my child ready?”

The question emerged after a Johnston mother was arrested Thursday for leaving her four children unsupervised while she traveled to Germany, a trip expected to last nearly two weeks.

More: Mom arrested after leaving kids at home to go on trip to Germany

Erin Lee Macke, 30, is charged with child endangerment. Two of her children are 12, and the others are ages 6 and 7.

Details of the case are unclear. A Johnston police report only states that officers were dispatched to investigate “children left home alone.”

“When you’re talking about extended leave, most parents would make arrangements to care for their children,” McCoy said.

She declined to comment on the specifics of the case, but spoke generally to the Register about the more nuanced issue of allowing children to stay by themselves for a few hours or to babysit others.

When is it appropriate — or even lawful — to leave children alone?

When to leave children alone

Advocates for the “free range” parenting approach believe in allowing children greater responsibility in caring for themselves, in some ways a counter-balance to what some deem over-protective parenting in today’s society.

But that can intersected with the concern of onlookers, who worry about the dangers of children being alone, prompting them to report unsupervised children to police.

In one high-profile case in Washington, D.C., parents were cleared of child neglect after allowing their 10-year-old and 6-year-old to walk to the park by themselves.

“There’s a lot more discussion about childhood freedom. Where it went and how we can get it back,” Lenore Skenazy told the Washington Post in 2015 while discussing her blog, Skenazy allowed her then 9-year-old to ride the New York subway alone.

In Iowa, there’s no set age or time-limit in which children are deemed responsible enough to care for themselves or others, McCoy said.

“Parents have to make judgement calls on when they’re able to be alone,” she said.

Considerations might include:

  • Is the child capable of caring for themselves?
  • What is the child expected to do if they are home alone in order to care for themselves or others?
  • Is the child frightened of being alone, especially overnight?
  • What is the safety plan if something were to go wrong?
  • Is there an adult the child can turn to in an emergency, such as a neighbor or family member?
  • Is the child responsible enough to know what to do if an emergency occurs?

“There’s a lot of different factors, it’s really a case-by-case basis,” McCoy said.

Some Iowa parents allow children more responsibility than onlookers deem appropriate. When DHS is called to investigate, and no neglect or endangerment is found, the family is cleared, McCoy said.

“We have 8-year-olds perfectly capable of being safe for an hour or two after school, but other 8-year-olds would not be able to handle that responsibility if something were to happen,” she said. 

This story is developing. When is the right time to leave children home alone, and for how long? Contact reporter Mackenzie Ryan at or 515-284-8543 with your full name, city and daytime phone number to share your thoughts for possible inclusion in this story.

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