VANCOUVER - A Vancouver father says a "hugely disappointing" decision by social workers to stop his kids from riding the bus to school alone is robbing them of their independence.
Adrian Crook says he spent two years training his four eldest children, ages seven to 11, to take the 45-minute public transit trip. The case is sparking debate about whether expectations about parental supervision have gone too far.
"Your job as a parent is to raise your kids to not need you eventually," said Crook, who has five children.
"You don't want to rush them through that process, as much for them as it is heartbreaking for you. But if they're comfortable taking on certain risks, it's sort of incumbent upon you to gauge whether they're ready."
He said the 13-kilometre trip begins with a bus stop visible from his downtown condominium and ends with a stop directly in front of their North Vancouver school, and the children always travel with a cellphone that allows him to track their location.
Crook said his heart sank when the Children's Ministry called saying a tip had been received about the kids taking transit alone and that an investigation would follow.
"It was pretty shocking," he said. "I just kind of hoped that they would see the bigger picture."
He said he wanted his kids to take the bus because it's safer and more sustainable than driving and, crucially, it teaches them independence. A distant reason was to save money by using public transit, he said.
After a weeks-long investigation, the ministry concluded that children under the age of 10 cannot be left unsupervised — whether on a bus, riding bikes around the neighbourhood or walking to the corner store, he said.
Crook shares custody with the kids' mother, who lives closer to the school, so they were taking the bus half the time while staying with him. Now they can't even walk to school from her home, he said.
He said the ministry said its decision was based on a British Columbia court ruling that found an eight-year-old could not be left at home alone. It also said that in other provinces, the legal age to be unsupervised is much higher, including 16 in Ontario, he said.
In a statement, the ministry said it cannot comment on specific cases but when it receives a report about an unattended child, social workers assess the kid's safety and the parent's ability to provide care before taking the most appropriate course of action.
"If social workers determine there is a risk to a child (or) to children, their first step is to immediately reduce that risk," it said.
There is no precise legal age at which kids can be left unsupervised, nor is there a specific ministerial policy, the ministry added.
The Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the claim that kids under 16 cannot be left unattended in the province.
Crook wrote about his situation on his blog, "5 Kids 1 Condo," and is now raising money online to mount a legal challenge.
Mariana Brussoni, a population and public health professor at the University of British Columbia, said the case highlights how social expectations for parents have changed in recent decades.
"You wouldn't in a million years dream of, 20 years ago, this sort of story happening," she said. "Nobody raised an eyebrow when kids were walking to school or taking the bus or getting themselves around."
Overprotective parenting has become normal and is harmful to children, who need to take risks and explore being on their own in order to build self-confidence, she said.
Brussoni said riding a bus is safer than being in a car.
There were no deaths of children 14 and under on buses in Canada between 2009 and 2013, according to the most recent available data from Statistics Canada. During the same period, 106 children died inside private vehicles.
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