Family Matters

An 11-Year-Old Babysitter Is Charged With Murder: How Young Is Too Young to Care for Kids?

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Few things stress out parents more than finding — and retaining — a good babysitter. Some moms I know guard their babysitter lists zealously, refusing to share names, not because they’re selfish lugs but because they know the truth: a responsible, beloved and available sitter is Mom and Dad’s ticket to freedom.

Fairly regularly, a shocking news item arises that prompts parents to reflect on whom they’ve chosen to look after their kids. On Tuesday, it was the announcement that police in an Atlanta suburb had charged an 11-year-old babysitter with felony murder and child cruelty in the death of the 2-year-old girl she was watching. (More on Why It’s Harder For Older Women to Have Healthy Babies)

Little Zyda White suffered a head injury and blunt force trauma to her torso and buttocks while she was in the care of her 11-year-old sitter. The babysitter has not been named, but she has been identified as the daughter of a coworker of Zyda’s mother, Ashlea Collier.

Apparently, Collier had dropped off Zyda at the babysitter’s home, which makes you wonder where the sitter’s parents were when catastrophe struck. Collier called 911 late Saturday night when she returned to pick up Zyda. The babysitter’s explanation for her daughter’s eyes-wide-open state? Zyda had fallen out of bed.

Web chatter has largely revolved around the severity of the charges the sitter faces. Georgia prosecutes children 12 and younger in the juvenile court system, where they can be imprisoned until their 21st birthday. But as a family and parenting reporter, I’m more interested in the underpinnings of this case, namely how young is too young to babysit? (More on Video: Building a Better Playground)

My immediate reaction was this: “Who would leave a 2-year-old with an 11-year-old?”

The answer: Gulp. Me.

Sydney, one of our favorite sitters, played soccer in the kitchen with my son and cuddled baby dolls with my daughters. They couldn’t wait for her to come over. If I recall correctly, she was 11 when she began watching my kids; my youngest was 2 at the time.

She was loving and kind and super-responsible. She was my former boss’ daughter. And she’d completed the American Red Cross’ Babysitting Training course, which is offered at local chapters across the country and geared toward kids ages 11 to 15. There, she learned all about keeping kids safe, handling emergencies and making good decisions.

Yet the fact that she was young and relatively inexperienced revealed itself one afternoon when my 4-year-old daughter took it upon herself to play doctor and ply her younger sister, 2, with a few tablets of baby Tylenol. Sydney and the girls had been playing hide-and-seek; the girls went to hide and apparently detoured into the medicine cabinet. In the end, no one was hurt and both Sydney’s mom and I spoke with her about the importance of always keeping little ones in your sight. We never had a problem again. (More on Why Most Moms Don’t Follow Breast-Feeding Recommendations)

To be fair, the Tylenol dosing episode could easily have happened on my watch too. No one keeps an eye on their children every second, but as a parent — and, perhaps, a seasoned babysitter — you do develop a sixth sense that something might be awry if the kids are gone or silent too long. But can anyone ever really foresee that a sitter is going to snap, as happened to Zyda?

Our benign experience as well as Collier’s tragic experience raises the question of who is fit to sit. Does age matter? Experience? What about having a house full of younger siblings? On, numerous parents weighed in. “Wow!” wrote one poster. “That is sad! I am not sure if I would charge the babysitter or the parents … Does a law exist determining an AGE a person needs to be to babysit???”

So far, babysitting appears free of government regulations. But, which links parents with prospective sitters, insists babysitters be at least 18. “It’s so specific to the individual, but we’ve set that age at 18 because of the responsibility level and maturity level versus a person in their lower teens,” says Melissa Marchwick, chief brand officer for Sittercity.

The truth is, babysitting — much like parenting — is largely learned on the job. You can check references forever — and I do — but ultimately, leaving your kids in the hands of someone else is almost always somewhat of a leap of faith.

What do you think? Would you let an 11-year-old watch your kids?

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Photos: Baby Dictators