FAQ – Unattended Children

Have you wondered how other libraries in central Texas do business? We’re starting a new series of posts, pulled from our ctls-l discussion list, to provide your peers’ answers to policy and program questions.

Q:

What do you do about unattended children in your library? Is it even a problem at your library? Is it something that needs to be written into the library policy? If so, is there an age cut-off?

A:

  1. We have a written policy that children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult.  While we don’t check ID at the door or anything, if a parent asks if they can leave their child or if the child is just dropped off or comes in by themselves and  is not exhibiting acceptable behavior we have something to back us up.
  2. We really didn’t want to write a policy, but had a very bad summer in 2009.  We had young kids (5 yr, 8 yr) being dropped off  at the library during the summer ALL DAY without meals or adults.  Bad, very bad.  And some parents would just send their small children off to the Children’s Area while they were glued to computer screens, ignoring their children’s bad behavior and crying.  There were a lot of complaints (one letter of complaint was published in the local newspaper) and I got quizzed by City Council.  When we wrote our Unattended Children policy, City Council approved unanimously.
  3. Yes, I think it is definitely something that should be included in library policy. I can’t imagine a public library not having this problem. Our policy is that children under 6 years have to have someone (parent or adult caretaker) with them at all times, and children 6-10 years must have someone in the building at all times, but they do not have to be right there with them. So children 11 years and older can be in the library by themselves.
  4. Also check with your local police department. They probably have an age at which they consider children old enough to be on their own.
  5. A lot about this type of policy needs to be based on local issues and conditions. Look around the community. Do 12 year olds go to the mall on their own? Do 10 year olds go the skate park without a parent? When I’ve spoken with child welfare staff they say that from a safety standpoint there is not really a minimum age for a child to be unsupervised. It’s situational based. So some of this becomes more of a behavior issue. People of ANY age are not welcome in the library if they misbehave. Few people would say that it’s okay for a 5 year old to be left unsupervised in any public location. It’s less clear whether a 10 year old is okay (as long as he or she is behaving appropriately). For this reason some libraries, like Waco, have both a child safety policy and an unattended children policy (or address them in combination).

Resources

Waco PL’s Policy on Children and Safety in the Library

Waco PL’s Policy on Unattended Children

Taylor PL’s Policy on Unattended Children

From Jeanette Larson’s book on policy development:

UNATTENDED CHILDREN/CHILD SAFETY

Background

The primary concern regarding underage children who are left unattended in the library is for their safety. Secondary concerns are related to the impact of the behavior of unattended children, who may be bored or resentful, on the ability of other patrons to use the library and the amount of time staff must devote to addressing inappropriate behavior.

Preschool children should never be unsupervised. Many librarians believe that leaving children unsupervised constitutes child neglect. Children who are old enough to be in the library on their own are often referred to as “latchkey” children. These are children of school age who may be sent to the library after school until a working parent can pick them up, or the children may prefer being in the library to being home alone. These children should be subject to the same guidelines for patron behavior as adults and not be treated differently just because of their age.

An additional problem may occur with children, who are old enough to be in the library alone, but are unable to get home on their own and are still at the library at closing time. Although legally the library has no responsibility for children who are left unattended, most of us are concerned about their welfare. In small towns and close-knit communities, we may even feel more responsibility because we know the families (or at least know of the families).

Library managers must be concerned about potential liability for problems that may occur either because of library staff trying to help a child or because actions or policies establish an expectation of responsibility. Although library staff has no legal duty to help a child who has been left at closing, any library staff who do help has a responsibility to see the situation through to its conclusion. If, for example, the librarian waits with a child for a short period of time after closing but then decides to go ahead and leave, she may be held responsible for any problems that occur after her departure. “By taking on the responsibility of waiting with unattended children, the library has assumed a duty of due care.” Liability depends, in part, on what the library’s policy says about unattended children.

Issues

Any policy must address concern for the safety and well being of children. Additional concerns are for maintaining an orderly place where all patrons can make appropriate use of the library.

What is the age in your community under which children may not be left without adult supervision? The age under which a child can be considered abandoned if left without parental or other adult supervision is generally established by the legal system. In most communities, there is not a hard and fast rule about when children can be left without parental supervision or under the care of a legal guardian. Many libraries consider the age at which children in their community might reasonably walk to and from school alone when developing guidelines. Keep in mind that maturity may be as much a factor as age. Above a reasonable age, maturity and the ability to self-regulate behavior must be considered.

What other facilities are there for childcare in the community? Problems with unattended children are better resolved by offering solutions for parents who may feel they have no other choices for their children. The Public Library Association’s Service to Children Committee implores libraries to be involved in finding solutions to a community-wide problem and suggests that the library serve as a catalyst for change. At the very least, being able to offer parents’ alternatives may help alleviate the problem of unattended children being left in the library.

Have you discussed concerns about the safety of children and appropriate actions with the local law enforcement authorities? Support from law enforcement authorities will allow the library to establish policies and write procedures that will be enforceable. Without support, the library runs the risk of receiving no response or getting an inappropriate response from law enforcement agents who may feel that the library is unnecessarily calling on them. In many locations, child protective service agencies will help library staff understand what constitutes child neglect and provide information on resources for parents.

Have you discussed liability for unattended children with your legal counsel? Although the public library does not have the same provision of care responsibilities that schools and childcare centers have, local laws may set stricter standards. Under no circumstances is it advisable for library staff to transport children in a personal vehicle. Especially in small, close-knit communities, this can be an uncomfortable, but necessary part of the policy. If the library’s policy directs staff to stay with unattended children after closing, the library is establishing the duty of due care and staff are taking care of the child as part of their library duties. If there is not a policy directing staff to stay with unattended children after closing, or to take other action such as taking the child somewhere else, the library staff who does take action faces personal liability if problems arise. Keep in mind that if staff are directed to stay with a child after closing, this is considered work time and the staff members should be compensated appropriately. It’s probably good practice, and provides an added measure of security, to have two staff members stay with a child.

Are parents’ leaving-young children in the library while they run other errands? Some parents assume that the library is a safe place for their children and will drop young children off for programs while they leave for a short time. Are signs posted warning parents not to leave the building while their children are in library-sponsored programs? Are brochures available that explain concern for the safety of children left unattended? If possible, brochures should also offer suggestions for alternatives to leaving a child alone in the library.

Is the library within walking distance of most households in the community or near public transportation? Are library hours clearly posted and kept as consistent as possible so that parents know when the library closes? It may be necessary to contact the police if children are left waiting outside alone after all staff members have left the building.

From the CTLS Archives, June, 2010

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