The question of when it's acceptable to leave children home alone is one that provokes much debate. The law is actually quite vague on the subject, stating only that it’s an offence to leave a child alone if it places them at risk. There is no definition of the circumstances or situations that might place a child at risk but children's protection groups like the NSPCC offer guidelines and advice. If a parent or guardian is deemed to have placed a a child at risk punishment can range from a fine to 10 years imprisonment, according to the BBC.
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Minimum age of a child left home alone
The law does not set a minimum age at which children can be left alone, according to the NSPCC. Parents can however be prosecuted for neglect if they leave a child unsupervised “in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering or injury to health." The relevant laws are the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 (England and Wales), Children and Young Persons (Scotland) Act and Children and Young Persons Act (Northern Ireland) 1968. The Children’s Legal Centre advises that most children under the age of 13 should not be left at home alone. Maturity may be more important than age however. A particular 12 year old child may be more mature and able to cope than the average 13 year old for example. According to a 2011 YouGov survey the average age at which people think it is acceptable to leave children alone for short periods is 12.5 years. The NSPCC suggests that children under 16 shouldn’t be left alone overnight and that babies, toddlers and very young children should never be left alone.
Maximum time to leave a child home alone
As with minimum age the law does not set a maximum time for which children can be left home alone. It again depends on whether the child is considered to have been put at risk. The Children's Legal Centre suggests that a parent who leaves a 12 year old alone at home to take a short trip to the local shops would not be committing an offence, but leaving a 14 year old at home alone for a week would be an offence. It points out that these are only guidelines however. The NSPCC suggests that children under 16 shouldn’t be left alone overnight and that babies, toddlers and very young children should never be left alone, even for very short periods of time.
If you have to leave a child home alone
If you have to leave a child alone the NSPCC suggests that you leave a telephone number and make sure you can answer immediately. You should also leave a list of other trusted adults they can contact. Talk to the child about the potential dangers of being home alone and make sure they know what to do in case of an emergency. Put obvious dangers such as matches, medicines and alcohol in a secure place.
There is no minimum legal age a person has to be before they can babysit but the Children's Legal Centre suggests that parents should ideally chose a babysitter over the age of 16. Under some circumstances parents can be prosecuted if any harm comes to their child whilst a babysitter under the age of 16 is supervising, according to the Centre. The NSPCC suggests that you use a trusted person such as the child's grandparents if possible. If none are available you should only use registered childminders.
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