Mother of young child fighting to allow him to stay home alone says case could set precedent

The mother of a nine-year-old boy who is fighting to allow him to be able to stay home alone for a few hours after school says if the judge rules in favour of the Ministry of Children and Families (MCFD), this case could set a precedent.

The mother from Terrace, who cannot be identified, says the closing arguments have now been heard in B.C. Supreme Court and the judge will hand down their decision in a few months.

“If the judge rules in favour of the ministry on this case, it sets [a precedent],” she says. “It basically tells parents they cannot leave their child alone if they are under the age of 10.”
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Her child, who was eight at the time, would spend about two hours at home after school until his mother got home. His mother and father are separated and the mother had placed her four-year-old in daycare while she was at work.

The mother says a lot of thought went into making the decision, they live in a safe neighbourhood and only five houses from the school. She says her son is mature enough to be left on his own.

However, this past January, it came to the attention of the MCFD that the child was home alone between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. after school each weekday. She says a woman who works for the MCFD lives across the street from her.

This woman stopped her son and asked if his mother was home.

“[She] didn’t have cause for concern to stop my son, he wasn’t doing anything inappropriate, he wasn’t in harm’s way, he was simply walking home,” says the mother.

She then received a call from the ministry’s office asking if she was home and when she said ‘no’ and added that her son was supposed to be in the care of a neighbour and she would check on the circumstances.

She was told the office was going to call her the next day, but no one did.

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“Of course parents who receive these calls don’t take them lightly and it caused some stress and some upset, some concern,” she says. “I began questioning and reviewing everything I’d already read, federally, provincially, social science articles.”

Four weeks later she received a call and was told no one under the age of 12 should be left alone.

She met with a social worker and says she was told she needed to sign a safety plan for her son, stating that she would not leave him home alone. The mother wanted to consult a lawyer and says the social worker told her it was a waste of time to go to court because they always side with the social worker.

“She was not interested in hearing anything I had done to prepare my son to stay at home occasionally for a few hours after school,” says the mother.

“She basically came in with the predetermined decision that nobody under the age of 10 could stay home alone.”

She says there was never an investigation into her case and worries her case will become a benchmark for others.

“My only issue is that an investigation was never completed in my case,” she says. “It was a social worker’s professional opinion that was, I guess, to be implemented and I did not agree. And that has caused a very expensive legal argument in front of the courts.”

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“Most parents, I would imagine, would bow down to a social worker with that opinion because they simply don’t have the means to question, which is unfortunate.”

Stephanie Cadieux, the Minister for Children and Family Development, said in a statement to Global News that “there is no specific age in legislation –federally or provincially – nor is there specific ministerial policy that dictates when a child can be unsupervised.” However, the ministry uses 12 years of age as a general guideline.

“Concerns have been expressed through the media that a recent court ruling will set an age at which a child cannot legally be left on his or her own. This is not the ministry’s belief, and it is important to point out that the ruling in question comes from an appeal of an interim decision. The final determination of whether a child is in need of protection would need to be decided by a judge in provincial court.”

Cadieux says whenever the ministry receives a report that a child has been left unattended, staff take steps to assess the child’s safety based on factors including capacity and maturity, how long the child is left alone, the safety measures in place and whether the child has access to responsible adults and the means to contact their parents.

“If social workers determine there is a risk to a child/to children, their first step is to immediately reduce that risk. The unique circumstances of each situation determine next steps, which may involve putting services or supports in place to ensure that the health and well-being of the child/children are being addressed,” adds Cadieux.

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