Free-Range Kids

This Mom Lost Custody After She Left Her Kid Alone at Home for 90 Minutes

A Canadian court is set to decide whether to criminalize latchkey kids-or at least their parents.

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Latchkey
Kenneth Allen

In the summer of 2013, a Canadian mom left her 6-year-old boy home alone for 90 minutes while she ran some errands. No one disputes that the house was locked and that the boy had plenty of food and water (and TV), nor that the boy was anything other than fine. Nonetheless, the mom was charged with child abandonment. She lost custody and hasn't seen her son since her arrest. She has been fighting in Manitoban court to get him back ever since.

The judge's ruling in this case could set a harmful precedent for families with "latchkey kids" who spend some time by themselves at home after school while their parents work.

Prosecutor Nancy Fazenda has argued that "Even in a home environment, that child was endangered." But the mom's lawyer, Michael Law, warned the judge: "If you were to convict in this case, you would be bringing the law into a new realm, it would be unprecedented," according to The Winnipeg Free Press.

It would not be totally unexpected, however, in that our culture tends to believe that any child who is not supervised 24/7 is in danger. That's why the Maryland couple that let their 10- and 6-year-old children walk home from the park was investigated by Child Protective Services. It wasn't that something bad happened, or even was likely to. Only that the parents had allowed their children to be on their own for a bit. How dare they? Any childhood independence is considered dangerous by bullying bureaucrats, even though the actual crime rate has been dropping for decades.

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In America, latchkey kids have a long history dating back to World War II, when Rosie was busy riveting till suppertime. While a recent Census Bureau report found that the number of latchkey kids has declined of late, there are still plenty of children who come home, make a snack and do their homework on their own. Would they be better served by a parent in jail instead of on the job? 

Criminalizing latchkey kids is criminalizing busy parents who believe in their kids, and kids who are ready to take on some responsibility, knowing that their families are depending on them. Single-parent households are obviously even more at risk if constant supervision becomes the only legal option.

The bottom line is: "Latchkey" does not equal "neglected." In fact, many of today's adults remember their latchkey childhoods with fondness. As Tim Kreider wrote in The New York Times

I was a member of the latchkey generation and had three hours of totally unstructured, largely unsupervised time every afternoon, time I used to do everything from surfing the World Book Encyclopedia to making animated films to getting together with friends in the woods to chuck dirt clods directly into one another's eyes, all of which provided me with important skills and insights that remain valuable to this day. Those free hours became the model for how I wanted to live the rest of my life.

Why are we taking these hours away from kids—and parenting decisions away from their parents?