Do the laws differ from state to state?
While the laws across Australian states are often similar, there are some slight variations. In NSW, and likewise across the country, the law offers no clear age limit for when it's appropriate to leave kids at home alone. As a parent, it'll be up to you to judge what is best for your child.
In Queensland, leaving children under 12 at home for an "unreasonable time" without supervision is considered a misdemeanour. The legislation also says that "unreasonable time" depends on all the surrounding circumstances.
In Victoria, it is an offence to leave a child unattended for longer than what is deemed reasonable - this includes leaving a child at home, in a car, or anywhere unattended.
According to the 1900 Crimes Act, parents can be charged in Canberra with an offence if children are left in a dangerous situation and are not fed, clothed or provided with accommodation.
How do Australian laws compare to other countries?
In the UK, the law similarly doesn't state a specific age that a child can be left alone, but it does provide the following guidelines:
- children under 12 are rarely mature enough to be left alone for a long period of time
- children under 16 shouldn’t be left alone overnight
- babies, toddlers and very young children should never be left alone
There are also no clearly defined age cut-offs in China. However, in New Zealand, it is illegal to leave your child alone if they are under 14.
What are the laws around babysitting?
In many cultures, it's common for siblings to look after each other. But in Australia, the law says that it's a parent's legal obligation to ensure children are safe and adequately looked after.
So, say you get your teenage niece to babysit your kids overnight. If your niece happens to do something reckless, you could be held responsible for their behaviour. The law won't judge a child against the standards of responsibility expected of an adult.
What are the consequences of leaving your children at home alone?
In Victoria, the penalty for leaving children unattended is a fine of 25 penalty units, imprisonment for six months, or both.
In Tasmania, the penalty is a fine of up to 15 penalty units, imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months, or both.
In the ACT, Care and Protection can remove children from situations where their immediate safety is in danger, and there is no responsible adult or guardian present.
In Western Australia, Police or a Departmental Child Protection Worker can move a child to a safe place if the child is at risk and unaccompanied by a responsible adult.
Are there cases where parents have left children alone and have suffered consequences?
Earlier this year, a young woman from Sydney was charged with child abandonment after leaving her three-month-old baby alone for several hours. There have been cases where parents have received fines, even when they've allegedly left their children under the care of their friends.
What can I do if I need to leave my children at home alone?
Sometimes we have no other choice but to leave our kids at home alone. Not all families can afford to put children in after-school care, and not everyone has flexible working conditions. And there are benefits to leaving teenagers and mature children alone. It allows your kids a sense of growing independence, privacy and personal space, especially if you have a big family.
Say there's an emergency, and for whatever reason, you need to leave your kids at home: it's best to prepare.
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.