Is this for real?

In October 1999 the nightmare of every parent who has ever used a
babysitter was played out at Manchester crown court. In the dock
stood a 13-year-old girl accused of murdering a 16-month-old infant
she had been babysitting the previous December.

The jury heard how Molly Adams had been found in her cot with fatal
head injuries, including an 18cm skull fracture. She died in
hospital three days later.

Molly’s mother, Annette Adams, told the court she had left Molly in
the charge of a 12-year-old babysitter while she went out for a
couple of hours. She believed the babysitter to be trustworthy and
mature for her age. She had looked after Molly alone without any
problem on at least two previous occasions.

After a distressing trial the babysitter was eventually acquitted
of murder and manslaughter. She insisted the injuries were caused
when Molly accidentally fell from her arms and hit her head on a

Mercifully, such serious accidents, and especially fatalities, are
very rare during babysitting arrangements. Most pass off without
any problems and the “babysitter from hell” remains primarily the
preserve of Hollywood scriptwriters.

Nevertheless, each day thousands of young children in the UK are
left in the care of other children. From informal babysitters to
families where a brother or sister acts as the primary carer for a
younger or disabled sibling, there is a hidden army of children
being used to provide an untrained source of child care. Exactly
how many children are taking on this role is hard to say. The
government estimates there are between 20,000 and 50,000 young
carers in the UK while the 2001 census found 175,000 people under
18 providing unpaid care within their family. The most common age
for a young carer was between 12 and 14.

The issue raises concerns for the welfare both of the children
being cared for and of the young carers themselves. The Royal
Society for the Prevention of Accidents (Rospa) points out that,
unlike children who earn money on newspaper rounds or in part-time
shop jobs, babysitters are not protected by the Health and Safety
(Young Persons) Regulations 1997. Many children who babysit for
younger brothers and sisters feel they are being asked into taking
on unwanted responsibilities which can become a major source of
family tension.

Indeed, some children appear to be taking on such a burden of child
care that they are missing out on their own childhood, which could
affect them well into adult life. According to a study by the
Children’s Society and the Open University School of Health and
Social Welfare, about 70 per cent of former young carers suffer
long-term psychological effects, and 40 per cent had mental health
problems ranging from depression and stress to low self-esteem.
Half of those interviewed had had some form of counselling.

Legally there is no minimum age at which one child can be left to
babysit another – the responsibility remains with the parent who
must ensure that the babysitter is competent and capable of
carrying out the tasks required. According to Rospa and the
National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children no one
under the age of 16 should be asked to babysit. British Red Cross
guidelines give a minimum age of 14.

The reality is, however, that many children much younger than this
are often left in charge of their siblings, even if only for an
hour or so. “We wouldn’t want to recommend it, but we have to
recognise that a lot of very young people do provide informal child
care and they are not always very well equipped to do it,” says
Julie Mattocks-Cawood, manager of child care and development at
Bradford Council’s Early Years and Childcare Service.

Three years ago Mattocks-Cawood was instrumental in creating a
training programme aimed at improving the child care capabilities
of 12 to 16 year olds. The Stepping Stones programme, developed
through Bradford social services, the local primary care trust and
the education authority, was initially aimed at offering support to
young child carers. Very quickly, however, it became clear that
course also melded neatly with another of Bradford’s key

“Bradford has got one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the
UK and it was felt that we could use the course as a way of
addressing that issue,” says Mattock-Cawood. By offering training
on the realities of child care, the trainers felt they could help
raise young people’s awareness and encourage them to think twice
before becoming parents.

After a pilot involving 70 children in five different schools, the
programme has now been launched throughout Bradford and several
schools have begun using it as part of their personal and social
education curriculum. The training manual has also been sold to
schools, primary care teams and health visitors throughout the UK
and as far afield as Gibraltar.

One method the course deploys to bring home the reality of child
care is the use of electronic “real care” babies. As seen on
reality TV show Big Brother these lifelike dolls mimic the
behaviour of real babies, expecting to be fed regularly, burped,
changed and rocked to sleep. Students are asked to take the babies
home and “care” for them over a 24-hour period.

“One of the babies went wrong one time and wouldn’t stop crying,”
says course tutor Tina Lafferty. “The poor girl who took it home
came back saying ‘even my mum can’t get it to stop.’ We just told
her ‘sometimes real babies do that’.”

The weekend that course student Feroz Khan spent looking after one
of the virtual babies certainly acted as a wake-up call on the
realities of child care. “The teacher said she was glad I brought
the baby back in one piece,” he says. “I said ‘it might be in one
piece but I’m not. I’ve had an awful weekend. It’s really hard

Students on the course are expected to complete four core modules
covering the practical aspects of child care, the importance of
play, home safety and accident prevention, first aid and unwell
children. Another five optional modules, one of which focuses
specifically on babysitting, can also be added to make up a total
of 20 hours of teaching time. Students receive a voucher for each
module completed and a certificate on finishing the course.

“Many of the schools target the course at some of their lowest
achievers, so the vouchers and the certificate at the end help keep
them motivated,” says Lafferty.

Most students complete the course successfully, she says, although
initially there is often a “surprising” level of ignorance about
basic child care. “Things like not putting solid baby food into the
baby’s bottle. I would not go so far as to claim that we are
actually helping to prevent serious accidents, but there’s
definitely a need for this sort of education.”

– Stepping Stones details available from

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