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How young is too young: Is it illegal to leave kids home alone these school holidays?

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It turns out the Wet Bandits were not the only ones on the wrong side of the law in the Home Alone series - if the McCallisters lived in Queensland, Kevin's parents might have joined the would-be burglars in jail.

In the lead up to the school holidays, Slater and Gordon criminal lawyer Emma Aldersea is reminding parents of their legal obligations when it comes to child supervision.

“As the school holidays approach, many parents find themselves asking the same question: are my children old enough to stay at home alone?” Ms Aldersea said.

“Queensland is the only state that explicitly states 'children under the age of 12 cannot be left alone for an 'unreasonable' amount of time without making reasonable provision for the supervision and care of the child', with a maximum penalty of three years in jail.

“The law is less clear about specific age limits in the other states and territories, but that doesn‟t mean there is no legal obligation on parents to ensure their children are properly looked after.

“Inadequate child supervision offences exist in Victoria, WA, Tasmania and the ACT and could apply to children of up to 16 or 18 years of age (depending on the state) in certain circumstances.

“In NSW, SA and the NT, offences related to leaving your child home alone would likely fall under child neglect laws, which might apply in specific circumstances.

“There's also the Commonwealth Family Law Act, which makes it pretty clear that parents and guardians have an obligation to provide children with accommodation, food, clothing and other 'necessities of life'.”

Ms Aldersea said what constitutes an 'unreasonable' amount of time and 'reasonable supervision and care' would depend on the circumstances.

“Cases that have been before the court vary from leaving a child alone for five minutes to three days,” Ms Aldersea said.

“When deciding whether the time left alone was unreasonable, the courts will consider things like the age and capacity of the child, the length of time the child is left unattended, the presence or absence of shelter, food and water, and the reason the child was left unattended.


CASE STUDIES

  • A Toowoomba mother was sentenced to six months jail last year for leaving her seven and eight year old sons locked inside their home for more than 90 minutes while out with her partner and their other three children. The Magistrate said the incident was very, very serious and warned of the potential tragedies that could have occurred.
  • In 2014, a Mount Isa mother pleaded guilty to leaving her four year old son unattended at home while she went to the corner store. She told the court that she was gone for no longer than 5 minutes and left her son at home as he was unwell. She was put on a good behaviour bond for nine months.
  • In an extreme case, a Perth stepmother faced court after leaving two children aged four and six at home alone for three days while she travelled overseas. The woman faced two counts of engaging in conduct which could result in harm to a child.

Ms Aldersea said parents should use their own judgment when deciding whether or not their child is ready to look after themself.

“What may seem like a safe situation for one child might not be for another, so parents need to consider the maturity of their child as well as the environment they are being left in before leaving them at home.”