UI researchers study social workers’ determination on child supervision

UI researchers led a recent study on social workers’ determining cases when a child is left at home alone – which is considered child neglect.


Ryan Adams

The Roy J. & Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine is seen on Monday, November 18, 2019. (Ryan Adams/The Daily Iowan)

Kexin Cheng, News Reporter

University of Iowa researchers recently led a new study that surveyed how social workers think cognitively about how young a child must be for it to be considered child neglect when their parent leaves them home alone.

The study focuses on asking social workers throughout the United States to consider different cases of children in varying age groups up to age of 14. The survey asked social workers if young children left at home alone for four or more hours with or without injury is considered child neglect.

“Even for kids were eight years of age and younger, over four fifth of them [social workers], even the child is at 8 years of age, felt this is child neglect if they are being left at home alone,” said UI Carver College of Medicine Clinical Professor of Emergency Medicine and primary investigator of the study Charles Jennissen.

Fifty-one percent of social workers felt that leaving a child home alone at 10 years of age was child neglect, Jennissen said, but that number jumps up to 82 percent if the child was injured.

The primary reason children being at home may result in injury, and the most important preventative measure for injuries in children is lack of supervision, Jennissen said.

There are very few studies that have looked at what social workers think about a child being left at home alone, said Jennissen.

UI Emergency Department Social Worker and collaborator on the study, Alycia Karsjens, said that if a child comes to the emergency room because they were injured due to lack of supervision, she would need a big picture of the situation the child was in and what exactly happened for context before assessing what to do.

Once she’s collected that information, Karsjens said, she can share it with the medical team. If the team feels that the situation warrants a mandatory report, she will contact the Department of Human Services within 24 hours doing a verbal report, and a written report within 48 hours.

The cases of children injured when they are left at home alone are rare, added Karsjens. There will be approximately five such cases in a year at the UI Hospitals and Clinics emergency room.

“The thing that puts them at risk though, is just because it’s not frequent doesn’t mean that there aren’t cases [of] kids being left at home alone,” Karsjens said.

The risk for a child who was left at home alone but did not injure themselves is at the same level of risk for a child who is injured, said Jennissen. Children are being left at home alone with a total lack of supervision, so the risk in such an environment is the same regardless if they actually end up injured.

Of 4,933 surveys sent out through the National Association of Social Workers, nearly 500 in the field participated and responded, said UI Emergency Medicine Doctor Erin Evans, one of the main investigators of the study.

Jennissen said he hopes the study can attract more attention to the risks of leaving a child home alone, and there could be some laws or guidelines about the minimum age a child should be left at home alone in the future, since Iowa doesn’t have minimum age law.

“We would like to compare the child neglect in states that have law and states that don’t have law,” Evans said.