Home truths

Rebecca Calcraft polled care professionals on how they deal with the issue of
children left alone at home, she found they were content to rely on their own
professional judgement.

children unattended at home is a dilemma for social care professionals as well
as parents. At what age and in what circumstances is it safe and acceptable to
leave a child alone at home? What are the most appropriate interventions and

In the early 1990s there was a flurry of media
interest in "home alone" cases, but the issue is far more complex
than the newspaper headlines suggested. Research shows that referrals about
children left unattended at home are often made to social services departments,1
poor parental supervision is seen as an indicator of neglect,2 and
the potential short- and long-term consequences for children can be serious,
even fatal. Stone3 was surprised to find a lack of consensus among
professionals around supervision issues when he researched their perspectives
of child neglect. Part of the puzzle is that most parents leave their children
alone at some time, so when and why does parental absence become neglect?

As part of a qualitative study on the issue I
interviewed 28 practitioners who work in social services, health trusts,
voluntary organisations, and in the police and fire services, in one English
city. They were questioned on their views and practice regarding parental
supervision of children in the home. The findings reveal how professionals
respond to complexity and risk, and how they work with parents and other
agencies. The study suggests that the lack of specific guidelines at both
agency and legislative level enables practitioners to exercise that diminishing
commodity – professional discretion.

The research confirmed that the issue of
children left unattended at home comes up in practice, involving staff
resources and time, and causes some concern. Some professionals encountered it
only occasionally and often by chance, but it is a frequent and regular cause
for referral to social services and the police. The referrer is often a
neighbour, a relative or an ex-partner and they may wish to remain anonymous.
Their motive for making the referral may be genuine concern, but it may also be
an expression of some wider grievance against the parent(s) in question, making
it difficult sometimes for professionals to filter out malicious allegations.

Health visitors and voluntary workers said
they sometimes find it difficult to get social services to take their child
welfare concerns seriously, and felt the issue might not be given high
priority. But social services practitioners insisted that they always
investigate these concerns, often working closely with the police.

Intervention was seen as more difficult after
the event, for as with other indicators of neglect, acts of omission rather
than commission mean there may be a lack of evidence. Respondents expressed a
strong assumption that parents would deny the allegation if challenged; a
health visitor asserted that, "unless you catch [a parent] red-handed,
there is nothing you can do."

Social services and volunteer-run helplines
often receive requests for clarification from parents themselves, for many may
believe it is illegal to leave children under a certain age; this may explain
the high number of lay referrals. Most professionals were quick to debunk this
myth, but went on to emphasise to callers that it is the responsibility of
parents to make adequate child care arrangements and to think through the risks
involved in leaving children unattended. Although the law does not specify an
age at which one can leave children unattended, in extreme cases parents can be
prosecuted for wilful neglect or abandonment under the Children and Young
Persons Act 1933.

But most professionals respond to the issue
under the Children Act 1989, and how an incident is categorised – either as a
child "in need" (Section 17) or as a child protection enquiry
(Section 47) – has a significant bearing on how the matter is followed up.

Most said they would work within the Area
Child Protection Committee procedures, but interviews revealed considerable
variations in perceptions of when the issue becomes a child protection concern.
The new Framework for Assessment of Children in Need was being implemented
during the period I carried out the research so it is too early to assess its

Only one agency in this study operates its
own clear policy regarding children left alone at home. Several respondents
thought their agency had a policy but were unsure what or where it was. NSPCC
guidelines were cited and a few referred to an obsolete social services policy.
All the respondents said the issue had never been addressed in their
professional training, although one voluntary organisation found the issue came
up during the training of volunteers.

Whereas parents yearn for greater clarity,
most practitioners in this study were content with a degree of ambiguity in
policy and law, as this gave them the flexibility to respond to each situation
according to their professional judgement. Indeed, many resisted suggestions of
any tighter policy or legislation – as exists in Canada and certain US states –
for while this might end confusion among parents and the wider community,
professionals would be the ones to enforce such a policy, putting extra
pressure on already over-burdened services.

Professionals said that during assessments
they take a range of factors into consideration. These include the age and
competence of the child(ren), the length of parental absence and time of day,
whether the absence is regular or a one-off, whether the child has been
prepared in some way and is happy with the arrangement, and the availability of
help and sources of support nearby.

Also, the discovery of children left at home
unattended could indicate other concerns or even a crisis in the family,
perhaps bringing hitherto unrecognised parenting difficulties to professionals’
attention. For instance, the likelihood of physical or emotional harm to the
child may be enough to trigger a response, but if a child has been injured then
the incident is likely to be taken much more seriously.

Locking children in and ordering them to not
talk to anybody was not considered a safe parenting practice, particularly as
fire and accidents were unanimously cited as the worst-case scenarios. Anxiety,
loneliness, and experimentation with alcohol and drugs were also issues linked
to poor parental supervision.

Respondents were generally optimistic about
parents’ desire to do the best for their children, although poverty, social
isolation and lack of child care choices were identified as contributing

Also, the reason for the parents’ absence and
the reaction of the parent(s) to intervention impacts on how the case is followed
up. Absence for employment or for carrying out other parenting tasks was viewed
more sympathetically than for what were considered "selfish" reasons.
While there was some ambivalence about addressing the issue of parental
supervision, those in the study were clear that their main message to parents
was that children’s needs must come first.

When parents expressed remorse and accepted
professionals’ advice then the matter was rarely taken further. Parents who
were defensive or appeared unconcerned were likely to receive a stronger
message, with the possible legal sanctions set out clearly, particularly if the
incident was repeated.

When asked about their views on the more
long-term and preventive solutions to the problem of children left alone at
home, some cited more flexible and affordable child care provision, as well as
teaching children the skills of independence so that they are better able to
cope without an adult. Not surprisingly, professionals working with families at
a local level placed greatest emphasis on working with parents and communities,
and recommended promotional campaigns to educate parents of the risks and
remind them of their responsibilities.

Finally, local informal support for parents
was identified as crucial, to help develop parenting skills and provide
practical help with child care. It is here that voluntary organisations and
Sure Start initiatives can make a difference, through strengthening informal
networks and tackling the social isolation that many parents in poverty experience.

The "home alone" issue illustrates
the ongoing policy tension between family support and child protection, and
professional judgement is the tool used to negotiate this tension. But
promoting children’s welfare is not the task of professionals alone. Engagement
is needed at all levels to make children’s safety and well-being everyone’s

Calcraft is completing a PhD at the University of Nottingham. Her research
explores the issue of parental supervision of children in the home and is
funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the University of


1 June Thoburn, Jennifer Wilding
and Jackie Watson, Family Support in Cases of Emotional Maltreatment and
, The Stationery Office, 2000

2 Olive Stevenson, Neglected
Children: Issues and Dilemmas
, Blackwell, 1998

3 Bill Stone, Child Neglect:
Practitioners’ Perspectives
, NSPCC, 1998

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