Criminal Code

Leaving school-aged children home alone could become illegal if court convicts Winnipeg mother

The act of leaving an elementary school child home alone could soon be explicitly illegal, depending on whether a Manitoba judge decides to convict a mother for leaving her six-year-old home alone for 90 minutes.

Coming at the same time as a Maryland mother was investigated for letting her children walk to a park alone, the Manitoba case could signal the beginnings of a Canadian legal ban on latchkey kids — even when the child isn’t in danger.

“The Crown is arguing that the inherent dangers of leaving the child in a house should be sufficient,” said Mike Law, lawyer for the accused Winnipeg mother, whose name has not been made public.

Calling the case “precedent-setting,” Mr. Law said neither he nor prosecutors have found any record of a parent being convicted for leaving their school-age child in a home that, to all outside observers, is risk-free.

“No broken glass, no knives left around, it wasn’t the middle of winter, it wasn’t an apartment building where windows could be opened,” said the defence lawyer.

Winnipeg child abandonment cases are usually much more ghastly. Last March, a 22-year-old mother was convicted after abandoning her children, ages two and four, for hours as she drank at a hotel bar.

The year before, a 23-year-old faced child-abandonment charges after she wheeled her toddler into a ditch and wandered away to sleep off an ecstasy high.

In the case currently being decided, a Winnipeg mother was arrested soon after Child and Family Services became aware that she intentionally left her child unattended for 90 minutes as she ran errands.

The specific charge is child abandonment, which carries a maximum sentence of five years.

Under the Criminal Code, child abandonment is defined as doing anything to a child “so that its life is or is likely to be endangered or its health is or is likely to be permanently injured.”

“Even in a home environment, that child was endangered,” prosecutor Nancy Fazenda argued Monday, according to the Winnipeg Free Press.

Although nothing bad happened, in 90 minutes, Ms. Fazenda argued, the child could have choked to death, electrocuted themselves or fallen down a set of stairs — not to mention the consequences of a sudden flood, fire or home invasion.

The case is set to be decided in 30 days.

‘No broken glass, no knives left around, it wasn’t the middle of winter, it wasn’t an apartment building where windows could be opened’

In the U.S., the issue of “child independence” has recently been thrown into the spotlight after parents in Silver Spring, Maryland, were investigated for neglect after they directed their 10-year-old son and six-year-old daughter to walk to a local park on their own.

“The world is actually even safer than when I was a child, and I just want to give them the same freedom and independence that I had — basically an old-fashioned childhood,” mother Danielle Meitiv told the Washington Post.

Federally, there has never been a set age at which a Canadian child can be safely left alone — although various provinces and counties all keep their own guidelines on the question.

Under Manitoba’s Child and Family Services Act, a child under 12 years old is seen to be in “need of protection” if it is “left unattended and without reasonable provision being made for the supervision and safety of the child.”

In Ontario’s Simcoe County, the Children’s Aid Society draws the line at 10 years old. “There is no magical number of minutes that a child can be left alone,” reads a society pamphlet.

Other Ontario Children’s Aid Societies have simply warned that if a child under 10 is found home alone, “the onus is on the parent” to prove to authorities that “their child has not been left in a potentially harmful situation.”

In the U.K. — where thousands of citizens grew up as latchkey children during the Second World War — the issue of children being left home alone was recently highlighted by the case of Joan, a woman attempting to clear her record of a “police caution” for child neglect.

Eight years before, Joan had been handed the citation after leaving her six-year-old son home alone for 45 minutes as she took a driving lesson.

“He was in no danger when I left him,” she told the Sunday Times.

Britons do not appear to be taking Joan’s side. Last November, a YouGov poll commissioned by The Times found that two thirds of U.K. citizens wanted to make it illegal for any child younger than 12 to be left on their own.

National Post

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Never reported: Torontonian uses big data and privacy expertise to create anonymous index of sexual assault

Laura Pedersen/National Post

Lauren Reid has a unique contribution to the ongoing conversation about unreported rapes and the climate for addressing sexual assault claims.

Raped three times — once in high school and twice in university — her jaw-dropping experience had never been documented in any official record or police report.

Now, the 30-year-old Toronto resident is using her professional background in big data and privacy to push for a national, anonymous, user-controlled and self-reported database on sexual assault.

It is an ambitious project, unprecedented in its scope, but it comes with its own set of complicated challenges and concerns.

Right now, the best self-reported data on sexual assault comes from Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey on Victimization, in which a random sample of Canadians are asked, out of the blue and by phone, if they have ever been sexually assaulted. The most recent survey shows 6% of Canadian women self-reported a sexual assault — a number that activists believe is under-representative. An oft-cited statistic that one in four Canadian women have been sexually assaulted is routinely picked apart.

“It took me 15 years to tell my story, so if you are sitting at home watching TV with your family and someone calls you and says ‘So have you been raped?’ who knows what you’re going to be ready to say at that time?” said Ms. Reid, who hopes to launch the database as part of her existing project, When You’re — a place where survivors can share their stories in a supportive environment.

“The goal with When You’re Ready is to create a database that allows us insights into ‘Why didn’t you report it?’” among other things, she said.

The intention of this new database being proposed by Ms. Reid is to also try to gauge how many people are sexually assaulted more than once, if people didn’t know it was rape at the time, if they were drinking or drugged and so on. Users would enter their stories and add or change information any time. The database would need to maintain clear definitions of sexual assault, she said, and it would be fully anonymous — no naming of names allowed. Above all, the data would be in the users’ control and “de-identified,” likely using the Privacy by Design framework developed by former Ontario privacy commissioner and world-renowned privacy expert Dr. Ann Cavoukian, who said she applauds Ms. Reid’s vision.

Even those who support the intention of such a database worry about privacy concerns, legal implications and false reports.

“How do you know who’s submitting? How do you know it’s not a men’s rights activist?” said Irene Tsepnopoulos-Elhaimer, executive director of the Women Against Violence Against Women rape crisis centre in Vancouver.

She is skeptical that privacy protections will be sufficient in an era of surveillance and hacking, and she feels that the numbers collected by Statistics Canada and rape crisis centres such as her own, which are shared with government, are enough.

“If this web-based platform seeks to influence the public that sexual assault is indeed an issue because of the numbers, then why is it not enough to know that currently there are approximately 472,000 self-reported sexual assaults in Canada every year?”

Holly Johnson, a criminologist with the University of Ottawa who studies violence against women, says the database could be “one source among others.

A former manager of the Statistics Canada victimization survey, she said those surveyors would build a rapport with the respondents and ask carefully worded questions about sexual assault using specific definitions that align with the Criminal Code of Canada.

Even so, many women did not want to answer the question.

“About 1,000 out of 12,000 called back and wanted to talk about it later,” she said.

Actress Lucy DeCoutere, the first woman to identify herself in connection with the Jian Ghomeshi scandal, said she supports Ms. Reid’s vision.

“It would allow women to feel like they have agency over their experience,” she said. “If people are starting to go through the process of reporting and have to go through the words a few times before they say them, this might be a stepping stone.”

But she also sees the drawbacks: Participants need to be sure they are ready to share their rape experiences before they submit their stories, and ideally there would be a trained team on the receiving end. And there are “humungous legal implications” too, she said, in that defence lawyers may comb a database like this looking for inconsistencies.

But, she said, “the best thing about this is it’s a conversation continue-r.”

Dr. Cavoukian is excited by the prospect of big data helping to drive an issue with such momentum even further ahead. Her Privacy by Design framework is based on the notion of individual consent and control. Casinos in Ontario use its biometric technologies to help problem gamblers stay out — again, with that problem gambler’s consent.

“There have been a lot of critiques about the numbers that have been collected. My guess is that this is highly under-reported,” said Dr. Cavoukian, who is now executive director of Ryerson University’s Privacy and Big Data Institute.

“If people felt confident that they could come forward without fear of reprisal or publicity, that they could just have a dialogue, I think you’ll be much more likely to get some real measures associated with this.”

Ms. Reid admits that this project won’t solve all the problems, but it is certainly better than the status quo.

“The purpose is to generate knowledge about a problem,” Ms. Reid said. “It isn’t to prosecute people.”

National Post

Laura Pedersen/National PostLauren Reid, a rape survivor and organizer of online community “When You’re Ready,” poses for a portrait in her apartment in Toronto, Ontario on Wednesday, January 14, 2015.