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.