With our younger children now moving into a high school environment many parents are wondering how to deal with after school care arrangements. Should children walk home by themselves? At what age can we give them a key to the front door to let themselves in until we return? We speak to Family Law expert Hayley Atkinson who talks us through her experiences and the law in relation to leaving kids ‘home alone’.
Back in the day…
When I was a little girl I can remember begging my parents to trust me with leaving me and my younger sister home alone. We lived in a rural area where there was no easy access to civilisation but our friendly neighbours were close enough.
I believe I was ten (going on twenty) and my sister only eight but I considered myself responsible enough to be able to handle things alone. When my parents eventually granted me home alone freedom, I was so chuffed. I got to stay at home, watch television or movies and fend for myself and my younger sister. We even had spaghetti bolognese that we got to reheat. It was going to be ah-mazing!
But what I had not anticipated was just how much security my parents provided by simply being home at night. Our home is very open, with glass sliding doors and windows throughout. They were always left open, primarily because it was so sticky and hot and we wanted to capture any breeze passing through. Another reason was because we lived so far out of the main hub that it was very unlikely we would ever come across a stranger. Mum and dad always locked the house up when they went to bed, long after me, so I had not even thought to “lock up” when the sun went down.
So there I was sitting in the lounge room, petrified because I was so convinced that if I moved to shut the doors I would be seen by whatever was out there. I remember mustering up enough courage to eventually run around the house with great speed and lock every door and window. But I still felt like someone was watching me. So, again, I ran up the hallway and to my room. That is where my sister and I stayed until mum and dad came home after three or four hours.
Operation home alone was a not so great success.
I realise that I am not alone in these types of stories and, like my parents back then, many parents still struggle to identify an appropriate age to leave their children home alone. It can be even more tricky now that all states have legislation in place that enables parents to be prosecuted if a child is left alone.
The question on parents’ lips is what age does your child need to be in order to avoid prosecution and how long “alone” is okay?
What age can you leave your kids home alone?
Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are hard to regulate as every child and their level of maturity is going to be different and also every circumstance in which a child is left alone is going to be different.
For example, are we talking about children regularly coming home after school to an empty home for a couple of hours until parent/s finish work? Or are we talking about the one off occasion like my situation, or even a quick duck into the petrol station to pay for fuel?
There is no uniform rule that applies across the country. Each state differs so it is important that parents are aware of the potential legal implications that could apply if a child is left alone.
Queensland is the only state to specify an age which a child must be before being left alone. In Queensland, it is a misdemeanour to leave a child under the age of 12 years for an “unreasonable” time without supervision. But what is an “unreasonable” amount of time is discretionary and will depend on the circumstances.
All other states do not pin point an exact age but instead, rely on meeting the parental responsibility requirements. In other words, if a child is not properly fed, clothed, housed or does not have adequate safety or supervision then the Police or Government Authority can step in and remove the children. If this were to occur, then parents can be charged.
In the cases that have been prosecuted and have gone before the Court, most result in the parents receiving a good behaviour order and a reality check about their responsibilities as a parent. But be warned, these offenses can also attract significant fines and even jail time if the circumstances warrant.
Things to think about
If you’re thinking about leaving your children at home, consider whether they are ready. Do they make sensible decisions? Do they get frightened easily? Do you think they would cope in an emergency situation? Be honest with yourself and the maturity of your child.
If you and your child/ren are “ready” then consider all the practicalities that go with being left alone. Make sure your home is safe, ground rules are set, an elder sibling is in charge if possible (but note, this does not relieve you of your responsibilities as a parent if something were to go wrong) and ensure that your child knows what to do in case of emergency. Write down telephone numbers for them in case they need to contact someone.
Letting children stay home alone is a natural part of growing up and helps create independence. The laws are not designed to catch and punish every parent who leaves a mature child for an hour or so. Be sensible, realistic and reasonable in your arrangements.
Hayley Atkinson is a Collaborative Family Lawyer at Brisbane Family Law Centre
www.brisbanefamilylawcentre.com.au 07 3862 1955
To find out more about the friendly team at Brisbane Family Law Centre watch their video.
This article was published in Issue 7 of our print magazine, December 2014/January 2015.