Last year in England and Wales, more than 500 parents were arrested on suspicion of neglect for leaving their children at home or in cars alone, reported the BBC. This is despite a lack of clear guidelines on when kids are old enough to be left unattended.
I’ve never left my kids at home alone — and don’t expect to for several more years — but I have left them without adult supervision in a car, several times.
Only ever for a few minutes, and when the car is within sight, but it seems this could still land me in trouble — as this is a grey area of the law with no hard and fast rules. Not even the age of the child is always a good indicator — of the 2015 arrests, the youngest child involved was six weeks old, but the oldest was aged 15.
One parent, Tim Haines, was arrested for leaving his child in a car outside a chemist for five minutes. The case was eventually dismissed, but it took over a year to clear his name, and he described it as a “harrowing and worrying experience.”
Official Government guidelines on leaving children unattended leave the decision to the parent.
According to the Children and Young Person’s Act, “The law doesn’t say an age when you can leave a child on their own, but it’s an offence to leave a child alone if it places them at risk. Use your judgement on how mature your child is before you decide to leave them alone, e.g. at home or in a car.”
NSPCC says parents are the right people to decide if the time is right and should consider the maturity of the child when deciding whether to leave them without adult supervision. It suggests asking the following questions:
- Would they be able to make a meal or use the microwave?
- Would they know what to do if there was a power cut?
- Would they answer the phone if it rang?
The charity added that as a general rule children under school age should never be left anywhere unsupervised.
A former Liberal Democrat MP, John Hemming has launched a campaign asking for clearer guidelines on when kids are old enough to be left home alone. Writing on his blog, Hemming criticised the current situation, which puts well-meaning parents at risk of prosecution.
“The Government claims parents are allowed to decide whether their child is mature enough to be left alone,” Hemming writes. “That, however, is not true. Either the police or local authority social workers decide whether, in their opinion, the parents have neglected their child. We need to consider what is optimal, what is ill-advised and what should be criminal or require action from the local authority.”