Home Alone and Sick

Dear Parentworks,

I don't even know how to begin my letter to you or if anyone can help. My sister lives in another city, she is a single parent of an 8 year old girl. She's pretty flighty - she moves and changes jobs at least once a year so she doesn't really have great health care coverage. She recently told me that when her daughter was sick, she left her at home because my sister couldn't afford to take any more days off work. My sister got really mad when I told her I didn't think that was very safe for my niece. It seems to me that 8 is kinda young to be left alone, is it even legal? What should I do if my sister tells me this again, I don't want to judge her but how can she think her job is more important than her child?

- Worried from a Distance

Dear Worried,

This is one of our nation's saddest plights - single parents (usually mothers) striving to provide for their children while working at low paying jobs that have little or no medical benefits. I have no doubt that every day in this country 1000's of children are left alone while their parents go off to work. In an ideal world, the choice of a paycheck or a child's well being is one that should not be faced by anyone - but it will continue until everyone insists on making changes to our system. Your sister's anger at you could probably stem from her own realization that it isn't appropriate to leave her child yet feeling against the wall for options. Unfortunately many states have no legal criteria for determining what age a child can be left alone. Children's Protective Agencies have guidelines for what can constitutes abandonment or neglect and what is considered chronic or extreme cases. A sick child with a high fever should never be left alone - no matter what the circumstances. I don't know all the facts of this particular instance but you are wise to be worried.  Since you live far away, you may feel that there is nothing you can do but I encourage you to try to find out a little more about your sister's situation. She may not be aware of the laws in her area concerning leaving a child (it's possible she could be cited), she may not know what resources might be available to working parents of sick kids (some child care providers specialize in sick kids) or she may be being discriminated against by her employer.

Gently let her know that you are worried about their situation and the safety of your niece when she's alone sick. You may want to do a search on the internet for child care providers in her area who take ill kids, if you are at all financially able to contribute you could offer to pay for your nieces special care on those days. Encourage you sister to find out what is available - from friends who she might want to share in trading off watching each other's child  to employee rights and options. It is bleak out there, but nothing is impossible and she just might need the additional resource strategizing that you can provide. The adage is heard often these days that "It takes a Village to raise a child" because it is so true. Do what you can to help but if you determine that your niece is at serious risk of neglect your conscience must guide you to go beyond your sister and call the appropriate authorities because you love and care for them both. Sometimes people can't receive the help they desperately need until they get connected to the appropriate agencies who will work to help everyone in the family. You have to live with yourself, your conscience and after getting all the details do what you think is best.