What The Law Says About Leaving Your Child At Home Alone

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This is a question that gets played out in social media all the time – and it inevitably ends with high emotions and probably a bit of name calling. But it’s something that we have to consider as parents, as our kids start to get older and more independent.

My oldest child is 12 years old, and she travels to and from school by herself on public transport. Sometimes I leave her at home for an hour or so if I have an errand to run and she doesn’t feel like coming with me. Sometimes I even leave her in charge of her younger siblings, but this is generally for a shorter period of time.

My daughter has a phone so she can call me whenever she likes, and we have lovely neighbours who could come and help if anyone was injured or the house caught on fire, but usually when I leave my kids alone, I come back to them all glued to their iPads and still in the same spot as when I left them.

But still, I know that what I do with my kids is too much for some parents. Some parents wouldn’t dream of leaving their teenagers alone for even a minute. Some let their children walk to school on their own at a much younger age. There are so many variables in this equation that it’s impossible to judge the wisdom of the decisions of other parents. And yet many still persist.

But recently there was a note from the Queensland Police Force doing the rounds on Facebook that had everyone in a tizz. It said that children under the age of 12 could not walk or ride to school alone.

People jumped to conclusions as if it was our national sport. Some were outraged. Some felt their own choices were vindicated. Many shared the note around to prove some kind of point.

But here’s what you need to know about that note before you decide how you feel about it. The note was published in 2015 and was intended for a very specific audience. It was written by the Officer in Charge at Miles Police Station, about 340km west of Brisbane. About six months earlier, a six-year-old girl had been found walking alone, following a hand-drawn map to a location “some distance away” that she had never visited before.

In that situation, a woman was charged with one count of leaving a child under 12 unattended. And a spokesperson for Queensland Police said there had also been several incidents in the town of five- and six-year-old children found walking through the town without any supervision.

What does the law actually say?

The Queensland Criminal Code says, under “Leaving a child under 12 unattended”:

  1. A person who, having the lawful care or charge of a child under 12 years, leaves the child for an unreasonable time without making reasonable provision for the supervision and care of the child during that time commits a misdemeanour. Maxiumum penalty – 3 years’ imprisonment. 
  1. Whether the time is unreasonable depends on all the relevant circumstances.

What on earth is “unreasonable time”?

Yeah, that’s tricky. Queensland Law Society president Christine Smyth told the ABC, “To say they [children]cannot walk or ride to school alone…in my view is taking that particular provision a bridge too far…You have to look at the circumstances on a case-by-case basis.”

And the circumstances to consider can vary too, just to add to the confusion. While the police have the power to charge parents with a crime, that doesn’t mean the parents will be found guilty. Judges and/or a jury will have the final say.

The court might consider factors such as:

  • the age and maturity of the child
  • the distance the child is travelling
  • whether the child knows the route well
  • whether the child will be unsupervised for a short or long period of time.

So you’d probably be fine letting your 11 year old ride their bike a few streets to school each morning. But letting your six year old walk a few kilometres to a friend’s house they’ve only visited once before could be more of a problem. Or if you send your child to school at 6am when it doesn’t start until 9am, that could be considered too long for no supervision.

The law varies from state to state, with some not even mentioning an age at which children can be responsible for themselves. But the spirit of the law is always the same: parents need to be responsible for the wellbeing of their children.

What’s important to remember in this case, is that the police have the safety of children in the forefront of their minds. So while you may not agree with their take on the law – or with the law itself – it’s there to protect some of our most vulnerable little people. And that’s something we all want.

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Being a mum to 3 kids (one of them full time at home with me) and trying to juggle everything became pretty crazy.

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