A version of this blog originally appeared on 5 Kids 1 Condo.
I've been teaching my oldest kids (ages seven, eight, nine and 11, as I write this) how to take the city bus to and from their school for the last two years. It's gone unequivocally well, with the kids slowly progressing from riding with me for the entire trip, to being on their own for part of it, to riding entirely on their own. One of my proudest moments in this journey came when we received an email from one of our fellow bus riders, praising the kids' skills and behaviour on transit.
I've happily invested countless hours riding the bus with them, coaching them and answering their questions to ensure they're capable transit riders. I've done this not because I'm too lazy to drive them or too cheap to own a car (we've been car-free for two years now), but because I aim to raise capable, independent humans who prioritize sustainability and safety above the perceived convenience of cars.
In fact, sustainability and independence are two of the most important factors motivating my advocacy for abundant transit options for everyone.
Our 45-minute bus ride is straightforward. It begins with a bus stop visible from my living room window and ends at a stop directly in front of the kids' school. We've had no issues riding the bus over the last two years, unless you count losing a cell phone or getting off a stop too early (their GPS-tracked cell phones easily resolved that). The kids have even become friends with the bus drivers.
Nobody's so much as shed a tear, let alone been hurt in the entire two-year learning experience.
As a responsible and socially conscious father, I did my due diligence before I started this process with my kids. Back in 2015, I asked our regional transit operator, Translink, what the minimum age is for kids to ride the bus alone. They informed me there wasn't one: it was up to the parent.
So imagine my surprise when I received a call from the Ministry of Children and Family Development (the Canadian equivalent of America's Child Protective Services).
MCFD (or "the ministry," as they're more imposingly known) received an anonymous report from someone concerned about my kids taking the bus on their own. As a result, they launched an investigation that included visiting my home and interviewing me and all the children — separately — to assess the situation.
I bent over backwards to accommodate all their requests, quickly. Obstructing or questioning the ministry — the people who have the power to literally take my kids away — is an unwise thing to do. So I cooperated in a cordial and swift manner, knowing that there was nothing to hide. Because, of course, there was no hiding how well the kids had adapted to bus life.
I forwarded earlier articles I'd written on the subject of why I taught my kids how to take the bus, I spoke at length and candidly about the months-long phases within this process and the cautious approach I took. Two people close to me who knew my parenting practices extremely well provided extensive character references to the ministry via phone interviews. I even suggested the ministry shadow the kids on a bus ride, but they declined.
While the ministry conducted their weeks-long investigation, they had me sign a "safety plan" stating that the kids wouldn't take the bus alone until the investigation was completed. I returned to spending several hours a day transiting the kids back and forth from school, a reduction in freedom the kids didn't understand.
Then decision day finally came.
The ministry called me into their office where I met with my caseworker and her supervisor. It started off in a favourable way, with the supervisor insisting that I'd gone "above and beyond" what any parent should have to do to train their kids to be responsible and conscious transit riders. They said they understood that this was not a case of me being negligent. If it had been, they would have rendered a decision much faster.
Ultimately, however, the ministry had checked with their lawyers "across the country" and the attorney general, and determined that children under 10 years old could not be unsupervised in or outside the home, for any amount of time. That included not just the bus, but even trips across the street to our corner store, a route I can survey in its entirety from my living room window.
Furthermore, the ministry advised that until my oldest was 12 (next summer), he could not be deemed responsible for the other children.
Their decision was based primarily on a B.C. case (B.R. v. K.K., 2015 BCSC) that dealt with an eight-year-old staying home alone, not four kids riding the bus together. The ministry also said that in other provinces, the legal age to be unsupervised is much higher. In fact, only three provinces have legislated minimum ages at which kids can be left home alone (and B.C. isn't one of them): Ontario (16), New Brunswick (12) and Manitoba (12). Only Quebec has a statutory minimum age for being left alone in a vehicle, and that's seven years old.
Does anyone really think there are no children under 16 being left unsupervised in Ontario?
Also in that meeting were some factless biases I've encountered many times before. The social workers stated that the comparatively wide-ranging freedoms we enjoyed in our childhood were, "before we knew better" — despite widely available crime statistics that demonstrate our kids live in a safer world today than the one we grew up in.
Anyone who knows me can tell you I'm a firm believer in evidence-based policy-making, so this fear-driven assertion rung hollow for me.
The ministry went on to say that playing unsupervised in a cul-de-sac based townhome complex was OK, because "neighbours were looking out for one another," but my kids playing in the fully enclosed courtyard of our condo building, overlooked directly by over 100 neighbours, was not acceptable.
(Note: in a subsequent email the ministry would later retract this differentiation between housing forms, after I zeroed in on this contradiction. They fell back to "our expectation is the same, whether the kids are in a condo or a townhouse.")
The caseworkers further maintained that four kids taking a public bus together was more dangerous than staying home alone, an assertion debunked by statistics. In the U.S., an average of 10 school bus passengers are killed annually, versus an average of 2,300 children killed annually in the home by accidents such as choking, suffocation, drowning, submersion, falls, fires, burns and poisoning.
Beyond that, the Number 1 killer of kids ages five to 14 is actually car accidents, something most parents do every day without a second thought. And the odds of your child being kidnapped by a stranger on the bus? Incredibly long. A 2003 study in Canada found just one case nationwide of a stranger abducting a child, in the entire two years prior.
I raised examples of successful kid independence from other regions, like Japan and New York City — where kids receive their own free Metrocards in kindergarten and are riding on their own at age eight. They didn't bite. Heck, there's even a dog in Seattle that takes a public bus alone every day. But the ministry replied with questions like, "What if one of your kids hits one of their siblings while on the bus?" — as if it were realistic to believe that an adult's presence should be required to prevent minor sibling spats from happening.
It makes me wonder why there's even a bus stop in front of our school at all, if the majority of the school can be forbidden from using it.
It became clear that once this issue had been reported to the ministry, they had no choice but to fall back on whatever tangentially related case law could be found, despite there being no issues with the kids taking the bus for two years.
It's a "Cover Your Ass" (CYA) culture, where even if a trivial issue is reported the ministry cannot condone it, lest they be responsible for future issues. The ministry has no incentive or ability to dismiss a report or allow a situation to continue — regardless of how many steps a parent has taken to ensure the safety and well-being of their children.
I asked directly if this was the case and the supervisor nodded, "yes."
Our family's freedom of mobility has been dramatically restricted for little reason beyond the complaint of an anonymous person. The freedoms my kids enjoyed for years were removed. Even simple trips like several kids crossing the street to the corner store, or walking to school on their own when they're at their mom's place were ruled out — effectively made illegal to our children, but not to every other (as yet unreported) family.
My kids' friends who are under 10 years old can continue to walk to school on their own, can go to the corner store alone, and can continue to ride their bikes home from day camp. But my children, who are arguably more responsible than most of their peers, cannot do any of these things until they are over 10.
All it took was one report from a stranger to shrink our world beyond everyone else's.
Being a divorced, single dad who has his kids 50 per cent of the time, I have little recourse to challenge the ministry's decision. Disobeying it even in the slightest (i.e. allowing a trip to the corner store by my 9.75-year-old) could result in the ministry stripping me of equal custody of my children, a remarkably draconian outcome I would never risk. The ministry has effectively mandated I either spend hours each day driving, or busing with my kids, or hire a nanny to do that for me — an outcome they'd be hard pressed to recommend if I were a full-time single parent without the financial resources to accommodate this request.
The result in this case is the ministry once again reinforcing the damaging trend of "helicopter parenting" that robs our children of agency, independence and responsibility. There's no weight given to the long game of good parenting — allowing kids to earn independence at a younger age, so they turn into better humans later in life. Instead, constant supervision and prevention of all risk on a minute-by-minute basis is the government's gold standard for parenting.
Despite research showing the negative effects of overprotected kids, the short game of helicopter parenting is what's rewarded and (legally) expected now.
Society then wonders why our kids grow up needing us at every step, unable to navigate college admissions or job interviews without a chaperone.
I've already done some legal groundwork to challenge this determination, not for myself, but as a defence of children's freedom of mobility by public transit in Canada.
Public transit is safe for kids, cost-effective (especially for low-income families), builds confidence and affords freedom to kids and parents alike. It's a vital public service that shouldn't be taken away from responsible families.
- Do you believe transit should be available to all ages — young and old alike?
- Do you believe in teaching our kids independence and sustainability?
- Do you believe rational, informed parents should be allowed to choose the transportation methods that best suit their family?
If so, please consider making a donation of whatever you can afford to the legal fund.
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