When I was a little kid I had a friend named Bobby. He was a year or two younger than me and the boys I played with but he liked to hang around with us.
Except his mother, who looked closer in age to my grandmother than my mom, never let him cross the street in our quiet, blue-collar east Calgary neighbourhood. That meant he couldn’t rove with us to the hill behind the nearby school, or the waste area near the railway tracks where there were always fascinating things to find and play with.
Looking back, I think having had Bobby so late, his mother was extra protective in an era when most kids were allowed to roam free once they were old enough for school.
But it today’s agee of helicopter parents and bubble-wrapped children, Bobby’s mom may be the rule, not the exception. That overprotective mindset appears to be seeping not only into parenting, but into child-welfare law, judging by two recent cases.
A Winnipeg mother is facing child-abandonment charges after leaving her six-year-old son home alone for 90 minutes while she ran some errands. Her lawyer told the National Post that if she’s convicted, the case could set a precedent when it comes to the supervision of school-age children who are not otherwise being neglected.
Meanwhile, in Maryland, two scientists are under investigation after allowing their son and daughter, aged 10 and six respectively, to walk by themselves to a playground less than two kilometres away.
Police reportedly picked up the children a half block from home after someone reported them being unaccompanied. Six cop cars then descended on the couple’s house and local child-welfare authorities have launched an investigation.
When is a child old enough to go unsupervised?
Provincial and U.S. state child welfare laws vary when it comes to the age at which a child can be left unsupervised.
In Canada, Section 218 of the Criminal Code, covering child abandonment, is pretty specific, saying anyone “who unlawfully abandons or exposes a child who is under the age of 10 years, so that its life is or is likely to be endangered or its health is or is likely to be permanently injured” can be sentenced to up to five years in prison. But it doesn’t set out the conditions that constitute abandonment. That depends on the facts of the individual case.
We don’t know all the facts in either case, Michael Saini, chair in Factor-Inwentash law and social work at the University of Toronto, points out. In the Winnipeg case, for instance, it’s not clear if this was a one-time incident or a chronic issue in which someone finally blew the whistle.
But it’s clear that there’s been a trend towards strengthening child-protection laws despite kids living generally in a safer environment.
"You’re seeing more child-welfare investigations than ever before," he said in an interview with Yahoo Canada News. “It’s doubled in the last 10 years in places.”
Fear of child abuse, neglect has risen
There’s either been a surge in parental abuse or there’s less legal and cultural tolerance towards certain kinds of behaviour, said Saini, who thinks it’s probably the latter.
A combination of publicity over egregious cases of child neglect and sensational media coverage of child abductions has raised the level of fear that children are at all times vulnerable and in need of protection.
Kids are walked or driven to and from school, while supervised sports and activities get priority over unmonitored play.
“Twenty years ago, if you saw two children were walking down the street to a playground you may not think to be calling the child-welfare agency,” said Saini.
"But now that you watch TV and see that two girls were abducted, you need to call that in because you’re concerned about it happening in your own backyard.”
That mentality was bound to seep into how the authorities react to reports of neglect.
Lawyer Nicolas Bala, a professor at Queen’s University and an authority on children and family law, said each province has statutory presumptions on the age a child can be left alone. In Ontario, for example, it’s 10. But that doesn’t mean every situation results in throwing the book at parents.
“In every jurisdiction there is flexibility and there should be flexibility,” Bala told Yahoo Canada News. “In fact, account is taken of many factors in deciding whether a situation is neglect.”
Bala pointed out child-rearing can also be affected by different cultural, ethnic and religious practices and how they intersect with broader trends in society.
“Ideas about child-rearing have changed and they change over time and they vary between jurisdictions,” he said. “Ultimately, though, in many circumstances it’s going to be the judge who’s going to make a decision if people can’t agree.”
Take corporal punishment, for example. The Supreme Court of Canada has effectively outlawed striking a child with an object, be it a switch, belt or wooden spoon, a practice common in the living memory of most boomers.
“No longer can parents say that’s reasonable discipline for the purpose of correction in Canada,” said Bala. “By the way, in the United States, you can.”
So it’s not surprising that the goalposts of what constitutes neglect and abandonment might also be moving, he said.
The problem, both experts agreed, was that in its desire to ensure kids are safe, society and the authorities who represent it can sometimes toss parental judgment out the window.
Child abduction is a tragedy but it’s very rare compared with the abuse children face within their own families. Were the Maryland kids very much at risk going unaccompanied to the playground? Probably not, said Saini.
"Are we making a good assessment of the risk of harm to kids? I think sometimes we’re not," he said. "We’re over-emphasizing the stranger danger and perhaps we’re not putting attention in other places where kids can be harmed. Kids are safer than ever before, yet we become more and more over-protective.”
Parents usually best judge of their kids’ safety
Parents usually are the best judge of their children’s safety, said Bala. Some nine-year-olds can probably be trusted to go across town on the bus, some 13-year-olds maybe not, depending on their level of maturity.
“We can and should and must give parents a degree of autonomy,” said Bala.
"On the one side, they have a lot of responsibility and if there are problems they may have sanctions. But we also recognize that they get to make certain decisions.”
Criminal and child-protection laws play an important role in setting the outside boundaries of what’s permissible, he said.
"But we also have to recognize that what might be considered ideal or optimal parenting should not be done through the criminal law," said Bala.
“As a general statement I would say it’s important that we respect the responsibility parents have to make individualized decisions. The state is not a very good parent.
"Having said that, for sure we should be drawing some lines and making it clear.”
Parents, neighbours and child-welfare authorities may be caught in the increasing magnitude of fearful vigilance. No one wants to accused of ignoring potential signs of neglect or abuse, especially in the wake of high-profile cases where authorities misjudged a situation with tragic results.
But there needs to be a balance to ensure children don’t enter adulthood encased in a protective bubble.
"Child development is really about getting the care and protection from your parents but also having some freedom to be able to master life in a way that they’re able to explore the world around them," said Saini.
“It does remind me of when people go to their cottages and the kids are not allowed to go outside and play in the bush, and the parents complain that their kids spend all their time on their iPads.”
No matter how the Winnipeg child-abandonment case is resolved, Bala agrees with the mother’s lawyer; the result is likely to set an important precedent to guide parents and authorities on which way the law is headed.