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PARENTING

The kids on the bus

After a Vancouver father faced official sanction for allowing his children to ride the bus without him, Wendy Stueck talks to parents afraid of getting in trouble for trying to raise self-reliant kids

Eliana Gaertner, 14, and her brother Rowan, 12, wait for the city bus to take them to school in Vancouver.

Tara Gaertner is proud that her kids – a 12-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter – haven't needed her help to get to school for years.

The family doesn't own a car and has travelled around the city by bike or transit since the children were babies. By the time the kids were 9 and 11, they were comfortable enough to get to school, five kilometres away, unaccompanied.

So when she heard that a Vancouver father had been ordered to stop allowing his young children to take the bus on their own, she was puzzled – and alarmed.

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"I think it is sort of a shame that our society is so protective of children that it deprives them of independence," Gaertner said. "I mean, every child is different – I don't think you can say, 'Oh sure, every kid should take the bus on their own' – but when the parent takes the time to teach the kids to take the bus and there are no problems and somebody decides [that's not allowed] … that's not appropriate."

Tara Gaertner’s family doesn’t own a car and has travelled around the city by bike or transit since the children were babies.

Her thoughts on the matter are part of a public discussion that erupted this month after a blog post by Vancouver father Adrian Crook. Crook, who writes about parenting and city life in a blog titled 5 Kids 1 Condo, described being investigated by the provincial Ministry of Children & Family Development (MCFD) after an anonymous complainant raised concerns about his children taking the bus to school on their own. The post struck a nerve, tapping into concerns about parental autonomy, coddled kids and the environmental impacts and safety of parents driving their children to school.

It also raised the question: How old do kids have to be before they can be left on their own?

Crook wrote that he allowed his four oldest children – 7, 8, 9 and 11 – to take the bus from his home in Vancouver to North Vancouver, where they go to school and where their mother lives. He said he spent considerable time easing his children into the independent routine.

The couple is divorced and share custody of the children. The mother did not reply to a request for comment.

A photo taken by Adrian Crook of one of the first times he and his kids took the bus together.

The Children's Ministry says it considers several issues when looking into reports that a child has been left unattended, including the child's personal comfort levels, the time of day, how long the child is being left alone and whether there are other children present.

Because of privacy regulations, the ministry won't comment on specific cases.

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But in a June 23, 2017, letter to Crook, which he provided to The Globe and Mail, ministry social workers cite "concerns that you were pulling the children's ears and allowing them to take transit unsupervised."

In a follow-up interview, Crook said the ear-pulling concerns barely came up in the investigation and that its main focus appeared to be the children riding the bus on their own. The letter also says there are no child-protection concerns, that the children are "safe in your care" and that his file is closed.

The letter also warns that "should another report of this nature be received, then MCFD may be more intrusive and will be looking at both parents' ability to keep the children safe."

Adrian Crook’s kids en route to school.

In a separate letter dated Aug. 2 and addressed to the team leader on Crook's case, a ministry lawyer says "only three provinces have established laws around a minimum age at which children can be left alone or in charge of other children. … Manitoba and New Brunswick state a parent can't leave a child under 12 unattended. Ontario sets the age at 16."

Parents quickly questioned those thresholds, pointing out on social media that the Canadian Red Cross offers babysitting courses for children as young as 11. Others scoffed at the notion that teenagers could not be left on their own.

But those thresholds come with conditions.

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In Ontario, for example, the Child and Family Services Act says: "No person having charge of a child less than 16 years of age shall leave the child without making provision for his or her supervision and care that is reasonable in the circumstances." The act "does not specify an age at which a child can be left alone, recognizing that age alone is not a sufficient safeguard when considering the supervision of children," a Ministry of Children and Youth Services spokesman said in an e-mail.

Similarly, New Brunswick law says anyone who leaves a child under 12 "for an unreasonable length of time without making reasonable provision for the care, supervision and control of the child" commits an offence.

In response to queries about Crook's case, B.C.'s Children's Ministry said "there is no specific age in legislation – federally or provincially – nor is there specific ministerial policy that dictates when a child can be unsupervised." And Allison Bond, B.C.'s deputy minister of children and family development, commented on the case by writing that the ministry "completely supports building independence in kids" and that "children as young as 10, or even younger, may ride the bus alone if they are well-prepared, comfortable and capable of doing so."

But while there may not be written policies, there appear to be unofficial guidelines.

In the June 23 letter to Crooks, the ministry social workers go on to say that "until the children are 10 years old, they cannot be unsupervised in the community, at home, or on transit."

And in a 2015 provincial court case involving an eight-year-old boy who was left on his own two hours a day on weekdays, a social worker testified that there was "cross-Canada acceptance of standards that include a consensus that children under 10 should not be left home alone unsupervised." The case resulted in a six-month supervision order.

Adrian Crook’s kids wait for the bus.

Wade MacGregor, a Terrace, B.C., lawyer who argued an unsuccessful appeal of the order, says social workers tend to take a blanket approach rather than evaluating each case on its own merits.

"The broader issue, and the one I was urging the court to rule on in the [2015] case, was this totally unofficial policy the ministry has, that no child under the age of 10 can be left unsupervised," MacGregor said. "That policy, such as it is, doesn't exist in any law or any regulation – it doesn't even exist in any written directive. It is simply something the social workers have come to and follow."

As the debate around law and policy rages, parents are left to sort out what Crook's experience may mean for them. (Crook says he is considering a legal challenge.)

In Ottawa, Joana Chelo has been biking with her two children – aged six and three – in her neighbourhood and talking to other parents about setting up a "bike bus" – a system in which one or two adults on bikes would accompany kids on their own bikes to school, about two kilometres away.

When she saw Crook's blog post, she had second thoughts.

"Honestly, my thoughts were: 'I'm afraid … somebody will say this is dangerous.' It took away a bit of motivation. But at the same time, I am getting support from the school, the community.

"But it made me fearful," Chelo said.

“I think it is sort of a shame that our society is so protective of children that it deprives them of independence,” said Tara Gaertner, whose 12-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter get to school unaccompanied.

Such fears can also be part of a culture in which parents are reluctant to let their kids climb, jump or slide.

But those fears are misplaced, says Mariana Brussoni, an injury-prevention researcher and associate professor at the University of British Columbia's School of Population and Public Health.

Injury rates for children in Canada "have never been lower," Brussoni said, citing research that shows steep declines in deaths resulting from burns, choking and suffocation over the past few decades.

The leading cause of death for children under 19 is motor vehicle accidents, she adds.

"Cars are really the leading cause of death," she said. "So you have well-meaning parents wanting to keep their kids safe – who put them in cars, not realizing that's one of the most dangerous things they can do."

And without commenting specifically on Crook's case, Brussoni says society has gone too far in terms of keeping kids safe, arguing that those efforts are having "serious unintentended consequences" in children's health, well-being and development.

But she's encouraged by the uproar that arose over four kids on a bus.

"I hope, in the longer term, it will give momentum to the discussion around risky play and how we talk about it and encourage it," she said. "It really sparked this fundamental outrage that, to me, gives me hope."

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