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This article was published 25/10/2018 (924 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When Katharina Nuss's two youngest children wanted to go to the neighbourhood bakery around the corner on their own last summer, she deliberately let them go.
"I stood on the sidewalk and watched them," said Nuss, who viewed the two-minute walk as a confidence-building exercise she could oversee from a safe distance. There were no streets for them to cross to get to the bakery where they're known and their mom was close by. "I was within earshot, and they were being supervised," said the Wolseley mother of three, who watched her seven and three-year-old bravely set out on their own.
"If anything happened, I would've been there in less than a minute."
Well, something did happen — a visit from Child and Family Services, a month later. In August, a CFS worker went to their home and gave her a talking-to. She was told that it wasn't acceptable for her children to go to the bakery on their own.
"I was told they shouldn't be doing that till they're 12," said Nuss. She said she asked the worker about kids walking to school on their own or in groups and was told that's considered unacceptable as well. The person who reported her children to CFS on that July day was a middle-aged woman who appeared to be an office worker in the area during a break, said Nuss. She recalled explaining to the woman that she was keeping an eye on her kids' free-range activity.
Nuss said she understands that CFS has to follow up on all calls concerning a child's wellbeing but doesn't think CFS should be telling parents that they can't let their kids out of their sight until they're almost teenagers.
What the law says:Click to Expand
Section 17(2)(g) of The Child and Family Services Act states that a child is in need of protection, if, “being under the age of 12 years, [the child] is left unattended and without reasonable provision being made for the supervision and safety of the child.”
"We're depriving our children of many important opportunities to develop skills and confidence," said Nuss, who says she's not "advocating for three-year-olds to go running around on their own."
"As parents, we should be able to exercise our judgment when it comes to their cues of readiness rather than our fear of CFS," said Nuss. After CFS came calling, Nuss wrote to the All Nations Co-ordinated Response Network (ANCR) and Families Minister Heather Stefanson saying that such a narrow interpretation of the CFS Act is not protecting children's best interests. She asked Stefanson to change the way it is enforced to allow for more parental discretion to allow children to start learning the skills they need to safely navigate the world before they reach their teens. In September, the agency responded with a letter basically saying it was just doing its job and that Nuss's CFS file was closed.
In October, Stefanson's assistant deputy minister wrote a letter responding to Nuss. It reiterated the section of the CFS Act Nuss was accused of breaching while saying that the legislation is under review and that her suggestions will be "considered" as the province makes changes to improve the Act.
"Both responses from the agency and the minister's office didn’t really address my concerns," Nuss said Thursday. "I thought a petition would be a good next step." Last week, Nuss started a petition on Change.org — "Bring Free Range Parenting Law to Manitoba." It sought 2,500 signatures and by late Thursday afternoon had more than 2,400.
"We believe that the Child and Family Services Act in Manitoba needs to be updated to specifically allow kids under the age of 12 more freedom," the petition says. It wants Manitoba's legislation to be more in line with a bill that passed in Utah earlier this year permitting "a child, whose basic needs are met and who is of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm, to engage in independent activities such as going to and from school by walking, running or bicycling, going to nearby stores or recreational facilities and playing outside."
"It seems like lots of people care about this issue," said Nuss. "I've talked to lots of friends who are angry or incredulous. Lots of people don't know about the law or how it's interpreted."
Stefanson said Thursday that she was unaware of the petition but would take it into consideration as she reviews the CFS Act.
"We welcome any feedback from parents or anyone from the community," Stefanson said after attending the launch of the seventh annual anti-bullying "Cool 2Be Kind" campaign at Queenston School Thursday. When asked, the principal of the elementary school Wade Gregg said some students in older grades walk to school on their own and his staff doesn't report them to CFS.
Stefanson recalled walking a block-and-a-half to school with older siblings from a young age.
It's important for children's development and their physical, emotional and mental health to have outdoor and self-directed play, and as well as healthy risk and opportunities of increasing independence, said Nuss, citing research on the subject.
A 2015 Council of Chief Medical Officers of Health in Canada, for example, issued an Active Outdoor Play Statement referring to the "protection paradox" in which "children are overprotected in the name of safety, but trying to keep them safe by keeping them close and indoors may set them up to be less resilient and more likely to develop chronic diseases in the long run," it said.
"What many parents remember from their childhoods as thrilling and exciting active play is sometimes considered risky these days. Children need the freedom to be active and explore their physical limits," the medical officers statement said.
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.