11yo left in charge of siblings

A MOTHER who left her 11-year-old daughter in charge of siblings aged six and two for nearly seven hours while she was at work has been placed on a 12-month good behaviour bond.

The woman, who cannot be named due to changes to the Child Protection Act, appeared in the Warwick Magistrates Court yesterday where she pleaded guilty to one charge of leaving a child under 12 unattended.

The court heard police went to a Warwick address at 2.40pm on April 7 – during the Easter school holiday break – after receiving information from concerned neighbours about unsupervised small children at a residence.

When they arrived they found the three children alone in the house, with the 11-year-old telling the officers she was “looking after” the younger ones while her mum was at work.

Police Prosecutor Senior Constable Steve de Lissa told the court the officers had observed the house to be in an “untidy and unhygienic state”, with rubbish on the floor and “visibly dirty” clothing and bedding.

When later interviewed the single mother, aged in her thirties, told police she had left for work about 8.15am, with her three children in bed asleep at the time.

Before leaving, she woke the 11-year-old and told her to telephone her grandfather to get him to come around to the house to collect her and her siblings for the day, as he had done on other occasions.

But the court heard the child fell asleep again after the mother left and the crucial phone call was never made, with the mother failing to call either home or her father from work to ensure the children were under supervision.

The mother's defence lawyer, Geoff Hobson, later told Magistrate Anne Thacker his client normally called her father the day before he was needed to look after the children but on this occasion had failed to do so.

Mr Hobson said the woman performed casual work and was also receiving Centrelink support.

He said she had been a single mum for seven years and the incident was “very much a one-off thing” and that she had no previous history of offending.

“Basically she put her trust in her 11-year-old daughter, who unfortunately has gone back to sleep after she left home,” Mr Hobson told the court.

“She has really beaten herself up over this and she's even had a serve from me about trusting a child as you would an adult.

“She feels badly about it – it was a gross error of judgement but it was also out of character.”

Mr Hobson submitted that as far as a penalty was concerned his client had effectively been punished enough from the remorse she felt after being charged and her appearance in court.

He also suggested that a fine would cause the family undue financial hardship.

Ms Thacker agreed there were cases where the justice process could itself be seen as the penalty but took into account the length of time the children had been on their own in imposing a good behaviour bond on the mother.

Ms Thacker also examined other recent cases of children being left to fend for themselves in cars and in homes, including one from last year where a Brisbane father left a toddler in a locked vehicle on a hot day with the windows up while he enjoyed a cooling beverage in a nearby hotel.

Another case involved a Brisbane mother who went off to a drinking session with friends and allowed her toddler to wander out of their unit and onto the footpath, before being rescued by passers-by.

Ms Thacker noted that at least in yesterday's Warwick case the mother had been at work as opposed to drinking or socialising.

“Motherhood can be very difficult in the modern age,” Her Honour observed to the mother. “This was a lapse of judgement on your part and you have learnt a sad lesson.

“But a child aged 11 is clearly not anywhere close to being able to take responsibility for younger siblings.”

Law changes

The full wording of the charge faced by the mother in this case is ‘leaving a child for an unreasonable time without making provision for supervision and care'

The charge was introduced in 2009, part of amendments by the Queensland Government to the Criminal Code

The amendments followed a spate of incidents in 2008 involving children being left in homes and motor vehicles unattended for lengthy periods

It is a defence to show that leaving the child unattended was reasonable “in the circumstances”

The maximum penalty is three years jail

(Source – Gilshenan and Luton Legal Practice)

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