Should leaving school-aged kids home alone be illegal?

A Winnipeg mom was charged with child abandonment after leaving her kid home alone for 90 minutes, and the court's decision may mean big changes in Canadian law.

1kids-gun-play
Photo: iStockphoto

Free-range parenting seems to be the hottest parenting topic right now. When talking about the act of teaching kids how to fend for themselves when left alone, the first question that often comes up is about age. On her blog, free-range parenting crusader Lenore Skenazy posts regularly about parents who have been charged with neglect or abandonment for letting their kids—ranging in age from five to 15—be alone at parks, in cars or at home. Most reports come from the US, but a case currently before a Manitoba judge could decide at what point leaving your school-age child home alone is illegal.

A Winnipeg mother, whose name has not been released, was charged with child abandonment after leaving her then six-year-old son alone at home for 90 minutes while she ran errands on a summer day in 2013. She has pleaded not guilty, but has lost custody of her son, who is now living with his father.

According to the Criminal Code, child abandonment is when a child under the age of 10 is intentionally left alone and their life or health endangered. If convicted, she faces up to five years in prison. “No broken glass, no knives left around, it wasn’t the middle of winter, it wasn’t an apartment building where windows could be opened,” says Michael Law, the mother’s defence lawyer.

The prosecution argues that the boy was endangered, even though nothing bad happened in the hour and a half the mother was away from the house. “The child could have choked to death, electrocuted themselves or fallen down a set of stairs—not to mention the consequences of a sudden flood, fire or home invasion,” says prosecutor Nancy Fazenda. “There doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative consequence.”

Meanwhile, in the court of public opinion, the mother has been equally derided and defended. The Winnipeg Free Press reported they had to disable comments on the story because of the “heated” and lively debate. Everyone has an opinion and no one agrees.

The problem I see is that kids that age, although they act, talk and walk like miniature adults, simply do not have brains like us. My friend Sharon pointed out that kids as young as six lack impulse control. Using her own bright and mature seven-year-old son as an example, my friend Danielle said that her son wouldn’t watch a clock, let alone know what to do in an emergency. If you’ve ever been asked by your school-age kid “how long is five minutes?” or say the phone number for police is 119 instead of 911,  you know what she means.

Right now the rules in Canada about leaving school-age kids alone at home vary from province to province and, even then, they’re not laws. This leaves parents to use their discretion but, quite frankly, not every parent has great discretion. A ban on latchkey kids might seem over-the-top, especially if you’re a working parent with responsible school-aged children, but it’s better—and safer—than the murky guidelines in place right now.

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.

23 Comments