Unsupervised Children

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Photo by Ben_Kerckx / CC BY

Going to the library unsupervised was a fairly regular occurrence for me when I was growing up.  Just me, a backpack and my trusty bicycle, and off I’d go.  I was never approached by a stranger in the stacks nor felt the gaze of disapproving librarians.  Speaking of stacks, the only harm that came to me was stacking it on my bike down a steep hill on the way home one time, the entire incident witnessed by one of my male classmates – I was horrified!  In my mind, the library was an awe-inspiring place, a magical mystery tour on each visit.

If I were a child today though, I doubt I would be allowed to journey to the library alone.  Many parents are concerned to let their children go anywhere unsupervised.  There are fewer children playing outside and many more cars on the road than there were 30 years ago. What’s more, parents risk the scorn of others, and possibly the law for letting their children roam unsupervised.

The law on unattended children in Queensland is quite harsh.

Under Queensland Criminal Code Act 1899:

(1) A person who, having the lawful care or charge of a child under 12 years, leaves the child for an unreasonable time without making reasonable provision for the supervision and care of the child during that time commits a misdemeanour.

Maximum penalty—3 years imprisonment.

(2) Whether the time is unreasonable depends on all the relevant circumstances.

Yes, 3 years imprisonment.  Parents and carers beware!  Obviously, the context determines what is considered “unreasonable”.  For instance, an infant left in a hot car for an extended amount of time would be deemed “unreasonable”, however, leaving a 10 year old home alone for five minutes while nipping to the station to pick up your spouse may not be deemed as such.

In terms of child safety in public libraries, ALIA (p. 55) advises libraries to refer to local, state and federal government policies.  A Google search on unsupervised children in public libraries brought up Children’s Policy Guidelines for NSW Public Libraries, with clear explanations and guidelines on “unattended children”, but I could not find a similar document for QLD Public Libraries (please post link below if you find it) – surprising, considering the severity of QLD law.

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Photo by Luis Guillermo Pineda Rodas / CC BY

In QLD, I located the very comprehensive Tablelands Regional Library Service Youth Services Policy and the Mackay Regional Council Child Protection Risk Management Policy which includes a section on unattended children in public libraries.  Their guidelines mirrored parts of the NSW public libraries document I’d found earlier.

Both regional library services allow children 9 years and upwards to attend their libraries alone provided they are not left unattended for an extended period of time.  “Unattended” or “unsupervised” is defined as not being within eyesight of a carer or sibling, and a supervising sibling can be as young as 12 years old.

In all three documents it is noted that unattended children might be harmed, wander off away from the library premises, get lost, become distressed, hungry, bored, or disrupt other library patrons.  They also stated that librarians have a duty of care but cannot fully supervise unattended children for extended periods.

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Photo by my1000words / CC BY

In communities where a significant number of children are coming to their public library unattended, I can see the value of having clear youth service policies like the Tablelands’ example as it conveys to the community that library staff have the best interests of children in mind.  It also increases staff confidence in dealing with unattended children, which might involve confronting carers and notifying the police.

Libraries are playgrounds for young minds.  As in my childhood, the local library can still be a wondrous place for a child to explore on their own provided there is an atmosphere of trust, compassion and respect.


18 thoughts on “Unsupervised Children”

  1. Great post Karen! I have found that attitudes toward unattended children are pretty laid back in the small town library I work in. It’s very much a ‘come and go as you please’ type of place (within reason of course). Previously I worked at a Dymocks store in Brisbane and there were *very* different attitudes toward lone children there – and for a number of good reasons (different duty of care / potential damage to books). In childhood I think libraries should be one of the first places kids can go alone – as you said, it’s a magical place 🙂

    1. Hi Imbi. Thanks for your comment. It’s interesting that the attitude towards unattended children is more laid back in small towns. It makes sense then for public libraries to consider the local community and government policies as ALIA recommends because every context is different.

      1. Yes, that’s true. In our case it has a lot to do with trying to get as many people through the door as possible – you don’t want anyone to feel they’re not welcome.

  2. Hi Karen,
    Thankyou for all that great info! I thought it was really good that NSW has guidelines for all libraries – I think it would help them to have standardised rules across all their libraries. I like the other policies too, I think they sound very reasonable – I think my guys were 9 and 12 when I started letting them go to the library on their own so I was pleased to see that this would have been fine with these libraries. I think it is very good for parents to have clear guidelines like this – I know some swimming pools have these types of guidelines too and I always liked that as a parent, not having to worry about if what you thought was okay might not be considered okay by others – standard rules means that everyone is on the same page.

    1. Hi Sharee. I agree that parents will find it helpful to have clear guidelines. Most parents want to do the right thing and there are mixed messages coming from the media. Maybe some libraries don’t want to make it clear because they’re not sure about their obligations or do not want to give carers the idea that the library could be a place to leave their children while they do other things?

        1. This was an interesting post and made me consider my values too – I value safety and would want to always make sure my kids were safe BUT I really really value independence and resilience. I would love for my kids (one day!) to feel that I trusted them to go into the library unsupervised for 20 minutes. I think it depends on the age of the child and the length of time left alone, really.

          1. Hi Karen. I feel similarly to you in that I want my child to be safe but also want him to be independent and resilient. His adventures out in the world alone were years later than mine. And children may well be safer on their own today because they have mobile phones and OH&S is well-considered in public spaces, however, there seems to be a different attitude towards children left unsupervised compared to when I was a child. A parent might be perceived as not being a responsible parent if they leave their children unsupervised even for a relatively short time. It may even be a cultural issue that can differ from place to place.

      1. I think the problem is that children have such a wide range of development, so the rule might be that children over 9 can be left unattended, but in reality some 8 year olds are very reponsible and would be fine and some 10 year olds would be a nightmare. What frustrates me, as a parent, is when organisations lean towards being overly cautious (for example making the age older) because I think this means that lots of capable children miss out on really important opportunities to learn essential life skills of responsibility and independence.

  3. Another issue that this made me think of was kids who have unsafe homes – I am sure the library provides a very important safe space for many children who are in this situation and as librarians it would be good for us to keep that in mind too.

    1. Good point Sharee. I think, because I had a good childhood (home = safety) I assume it’s the same for others. I think I might see things different now.

  4. Hi Karen, Really like your rigorous research about unattended children & Lib policies which will impact upon as when we graduate. I agree as a parent the difference between out childhood and our children’s is huge. However there is a difference between being a parent & being a professional following policy & that’s why I value your discussion. I also think as Imbi has noted country libraries can be different & wholeheartedly agree with Sharee about libraries can be a safe place. How this ties in with policies & duty of care I suspect is not always clear.
    There has been some discussion by parents about the change in society expectations re children independence. In 2008 a mother wrote about letting her 9 yo (well prepared) catch a train home in NY & she celebrated his independence in a newspaper article. The furor led to her website http://www.freerangekids.com/ & it provided our family food for thought & discussion.
    Anitra

  5. Hi Anitra. Thanks for your comment. I remember hearing about the NY mother who let her 9 year old take the subway home alone and had a look at the website you provided. Straight away I was shocked by some of the headlines – one about someone reporting their neighbour to authorities for letting a child play unsupervised in their large backyard ‘unattended’. Wow, that seems a bit extreme! With such a severe QLD law in place, may be taken out of context and create fear and suspicion in the community. I agree that it is a grey area for libraries and suspect some, especially in larger metropolitan cities, will lean towards a more conservative policy on unsupervised children. As future librarians, it’s important that we know what our obligations are in supervising children.

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