In Australia, children over the age of 18 are considered to be adults and you can legally leave them at home unsupervised. They can even take care of their younger siblings if necessary.
However, if your children are less than 18 years old, then the law is unclear.
There is no one law in Australia that says how old your child has to be before you can leave him or her alone. The States provide general guidance in this area but most don’t specify an age limit either. In fact, they don’t even say anything about leaving a child at home alone. Instead, there are child protection laws that are more about the parent’s or legal guardian’s responsibilities and focus on a child’s safety and well-being. This means that parents or guardians should keep children safe and that their needs are met.
You can be charged with an offence if your child is left in a dangerous situation, not fed, clothed or provided with accommodation.
The police or child protection services can remove children from situations where their safety is in serious danger.
This means that you, as a parent, need to use your own judgment about leaving your children home alone.
According to NSW’s Family and Community Services, it is important that the child left in charge:
- – is reliable and mature, capable and responsible and makes the other children feel safe
- – could cope with an emergency by knowing what action to take and where to go for help
- – can handle any disagreements or fights that may arise and know what to do if the other children ‘play up’ or disobey the ground rules
- – knows what to do if a child falls ill
It’s essential to understand that your oldest child isn’t necessarily the most capable carer of your children. Think about which child is more likely to take risks.
Consider your child’s concept of time and let them know how long you’ll be gone for. According to Community and Family Services, “Babies and toddlers have a different sense of time from adults. An hour is not long for an adult, but to your toddler, it’s endless and could cause distress.”
NSW Community and Family Services provide a thorough checklist on their website, listed below.
Do your children know:
- – where you’re going and when you’ll be back
- – how to contact you
- – how to use the telephone
- – where emergency numbers are listed (they should be next to the phone)
- – their own phone number and home address
- – the phone numbers of trusted friends, neighbours or relatives
- – where to find the first aid kit and how to use it
- – how to use deadlocks
- – what to do in case of fire
- – what to do if someone knocks on the door
- – whether or not they should answer the phone if it rings
- – how to judge if another child is unwell and help is needed
- – how to contact the doctor, hospital, police and fire brigade in an emergency
- – if friends are allowed to be at your place while you are away
- – if they can play outside
- – whether they can use the swimming pool
- – if they’re allowed to go to the shops or visit a neighbour
- – a special family password or code to use if you call and they need help.
They also recommend doing a safety check of your house before leaving your kids at home alone, making sure to check smoke alarms and window locks.
The key is to build up time alone gradually. You might start by leaving your child at home while you duck out to pick up a few groceries and build up to leaving them alone for an hour after school.
Rules in Victoria
In Victoria, it is an offence for a person responsible for a child to leave the child unattended for any longer than is reasonable, without making appropriate arrangements for the child’s supervision and care. This includes leaving a child at home, or in a car, or anywhere else unattended.
In Victoria there is no set age at which it is legal to leave a child unattended. It depends on the child and the situation.
When deciding whether to charge a person with this offence, authorities must consider each case individually to determine the reasonableness of the circumstances in which the child was left unattended. This includes the needs of the particular child. The Secretary of the department has to be consulted before a charge can be laid.
From 21 January 2015, the penalty for leaving children unattended is a fine of 25 penalty units or imprisonment for six months or both.
Leaving children unattended at home
Part of growing up is becoming more independent, step by step. Being left at home alone is part of developing independence and all parents make the decision to leave their child at home alone sooner or later.
Babies and young children should never be left at home alone. As children get older they need the opportunity to gradually take on more responsibility for themselves and practice being by themselves at home.
Parents are in the best position to decide whether their child is mature enough to be left alone for any length of time.
Leaving children in cars
Leaving a young child unsupervised in a car at any time is very dangerous. Never leave babies or young children alone in a car, even to run a quick errand.
Even in mild weather, cars quickly become too hot for small children. It can be 20 to 30 degrees hotter inside a car than the temperature outside. Children are more at risk from heat-related problems because their body temperature can rise three to five times faster than an adult’s, and they can lose fluid very quickly. They become dehydrated, leading to heat stroke, organ damage and potentially death.
Help to decide
Parentline Victoria is a telephone counselling service provided by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development that can help parents with these kinds of decisions. Parents can also find links to information on the Parentline website to help them decide whether their child is ready to be left at home alone. 1300301300
Other State laws for leaving children home alone
The following websites have state-specific information on leaving children home alone:
Australian Capital Territory
ACT Government Parentlink – Home alone
Northern Territory Government – Leaving your child home alone
- Queensland Consolidated Acts – Criminal Code 1899 – Leaving a child under 12 unattended
- Legal Aid Queensland – Child protection legal information
- WA Criminal Code Act 1913 (See section 263, ‘Duty as head of family’)
- WA Department of Justice – Children and Community Services Act 2004 (See section 101, ‘Failing to protect child from harm’)