Every parent has concerns about leaving their children; it’s an instinctual feeling that many have no control of. With such tragic stories as that of Madeline McCann still very much in the public eye, the question of what age a child can be left alone remains intensively controversial.
The fact is that there is no legally defined age for when children can be left at home alone. The law simply says that you should not leave a child alone if they’ll be at risk so it is left at the parents discretion.
Advice from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) states:
“Children under 12 are rarely mature enough to be left alone for a long period of time. Children under 16 shouldn’t be left alone overnight. Babies, toddlers and very young children should never be left alone.”
There might not be a specific legal age to leave children alone but it is safe to say babies, toddlers and young children should never be left alone. Even if they are sleeping peacefully when you leave, they could well wake up and get very upset when you are not present to look after them.
However, it should be noted that the above is simply advice and not definitive legislation. Parents can be prosecuted should they leave a child unsupervised ‘in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering or injury to health’.
Parents who are judged to have put a child at risk by leaving them on their own can be taken to court and a custodial sentence can be imposed in serious cases. In addition any prosecution is likely to lead to social services involvement and children being placed on the child protection register as a minimum.
The issue has received a large amount of media attention lately with a mother fighting for the removal of a police caution she was given eight years ago after leaving her six-year-old son home alone for 45 minutes while she had a driving lesson.
She states that she went to take him to school but it was closed. There was no one at home to look after him and she felt he was in no danger so left the house. She returned to find the police on her doorstep after a nurse called at the house and her son answered the door.
As a result she was taken to the local police station and was given a caution, which has since meant she struggled to pursue her chosen career as a mental health nurse. She is now making attempts to have the caution removed.
Following publication of this in the media recently Julie and Tim Haines from Worcestershire have come forward to tell their story from 2004 after leaving a two-year-old in a car for just 5 minutes.
Mr Haines left his son in the car while he visited a chemist to purchase Calpol for him. He returned to his vehicle and was confronted by two police officers. He was subsequently arrested and charged with child neglect.
The family’s children were placed on the child protection register, his wife lost her job and the couple spent 12 months fighting to avoid their children being placed in care.
The Government is facing calls to pass new legislation that will clarify how long children can be left unattended before parents are prosecuted for neglect.
Earlier this month John Hemming, the Liberal Democrat MP for Birmingham Yardley, tabled a Parliamentary question seeking clarity. He called for the government to be clearer about the circumstances in which parents could be cautioned or prosecuted by police. He told the Sunday Times:
“It is not at all clear for how long and at what age children can be left alone.
“Nor is it clear whether leaving them alone is either not an issue, a child-protection issue or a criminal issue.
“I sent my daughter, then aged 10, on the train from Birmingham to stay with my mother in Devon. There were no changes and she was met at the other end. Was that acceptable?
“I find it odd that whereas it is lawful to send the child to the park and leave them there, it is not lawful to leave them home alone.
“My main concern in all this is clarity. The law should always be clear. We need a debate about what the rules should be.”
The Government urgently needs to provide clearer guidance to parents in respect of this matter and possibly legislate as the situation at present is simply too unclear for parents.
However, we would advise that should you be worried about leaving your children at home on their own, it’s always best to be on the safe side and arrange some other kind of care for them such as a babysitter or childminder.
Written by Ruth Peters. Ruth is a specialist criminal solicitor.