Leaving A Child Home Alone
In Australia, there is no legal age at which a child can be left home alone; parental judgment is relied upon.
Parents, guardians and those with parental responsibility have a duty to provide the “necessities of life” to a child in their care. These include food, clothing and accommodation. Those parties also have a duty to protect children in their care from harm, including harm caused as a result of abuse or neglect. A failure to fulfil those duties may constitute an offence under general criminal law or under child protection laws.
There may also be legal liability when person aged under 18, such as an older sibling, is left in charge of care of children. A parent may be held responsible for the carer, as well as the children being cared for, if something goes wrong.
Queensland does have a law related to leaving a child home alone, but there is wide discretion in its application. Section 364A of the Criminal Code Act 1899 states that if a person who has “the lawful care or charge of a child under 12 years, leaves the child for an unreasonable time without making reasonable provision for the care and supervision of that child during that time”, they commit an offence. The maximum penalty is 3 years imprisonment. “Unreasonable time” depends on the circumstances.
Australian Capital Territory
ACT’s Crimes Act 1900 contains laws relating to the neglect of children which couod apply when a child is left home alone. Under section 39, a person who ill-treats or abuses a child in their care, or neglects a child for whom they care caring or have parental responsibility, they commit a crime. The maximum penalty is 200 penalty units ($32,000) or imprisonment for 2 years or both.
Also under that section, a person must not “ knowingly or recklessly, leave a child unattended in such circumstances and for such time that the child could suffer I jury or sickness or otherwise be in danger”. The maximum penalty is 100 penalty units ($16,000), imprisonment for 1 year, or both.
Further, section 406 of the territory’s Children and Young People Act 2008 gives police and child protection authorities the power to remove children from situations where they have been, are being, or are at risk of being, abused or neglected.
Victoria’s Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 allows police to place a child in emergency care if police reasonably believe the child is in need of protection. If there is a substantial and immediate risk of harm to the child, that emergency care can be a secure welfare service, such as a service with lock-up facilities.
WA’s Criminal Code Act Compilation Act 1913 has laws which dictate “duties relating to the preservation of human life”. Section 263 mandates that the “head of a family” who has charge of a child under 16, must provide the “necessaries of life” to that child and “is held to have caused any consequences which result to the life or health of the child” if they fail in that duty, “whether the child is helpless or not” .
Section 101 of the Children and Community Services Act 2004 makes it an offence to fail to protect a child from harm. It states that a person who has the care and control of a child and who engages in conduct knowing that the conduct could cause the child to suffer physical, sexual or emotional abuse, or neglect, or is reckless about whether it could, commits a crime. The maximum penalty is 10 years imprisonment.
New South Wales
Section 43A of the Crimes Act 1900 makes it an offence when a person who has parental responsibility for a child aged under 16, and who, without reasonable excuse, intentionally or recklessly fails to provide the child with the necessities of life, and this failure causes a danger of death or of serious injury to the child. The maximum penalty is imprisonment for 5 years.
Under section 43 of the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998, police can remove a child from a situation where police reasonably believe the child is at immediate risk of serious harm.
Assessing the risk of leaving a child home alone
There are myriad factors to consider when deciding whether to leave a child home alone. These include:
- the child’s level of maturity, and whether they could cope in an emergency;
- the level of safety in the home, and whether any dangers can be recognised and removed;
- the setting of clear rules, such as for the use of appliances, or the use of a phone or the internet;
- how long the child will be on their own;
- if a child is left in charge, whether that child is capable and responsible, whether they are able to discipline others, and whether children in their care feel safe with that child.
Leaving a child home alone
If a parent or carer chooses to leave a child at home alone, they should ensure the child knows about arrangements such as:
- where the parent will be and when they will be back;
- who to contact in an emergency and how;
- where a first aid kit is kept and how to use it;
- what to do in the case of a fire;
- what to do if someone knocks on the door;
- what the child is allowed and forbidden to do;
- whether friends can visit;
- whether they can play outside;
- whether they can leave the house.
For advice or representation in any legal matter, please contact Armstrong Legal.