“Anything could have happened in that house,” says mother-of-two Miranda, as she reflects on being left home alone regularly with her sister as a child.
“It affected my sister more than me, because she was a couple of years older, and she took it as her responsibility to look after me.”
The charity NSPCC says last August 849 children were referred to the police or social services following calls to its helpline over children left alone.
A third of these were five or under.
As the long summer holidays get underway, the charity is urging parents and carers to think carefully about whether a child left unsupervised at home would be able to cope with unexpected situations such as an emergency, a stranger calling at the house or if the parent is away for longer than anticipated.
From April 2017 to March this year, the charity saw 7,277 children referred to authorities over concerns about them being left unsupervised, with the problem being most acute in August during the long school holidays.
There is no legal age at which children may be left home alone, but parents can be prosecuted for neglect if it puts the children at risk of injury or suffering.
The NSPCC’s warning comes as a survey by the Family and Childcare Trust found British parents spend an average of £133.34 a week for full-time holiday childcare per child.
Miranda says her experience of being left for hours without an adult has had a lasting effect on her and her sister.
“When I really realised [what was happening] I was probably about 16 – we weren’t being physically harmed but we really felt unloved.
“It was the 1980s and we didn’t know what neglect was.
“I understand it was years ago, things were different then, but while I tried blocking it out for a while, becoming a mum myself, having my two kids that I just love so much and would do anything for, it really affected me.
“It made me feel that I was unloved because, never in a million years could I do that to my kids, and if my husband were to do the same thing, it’d be the end.”
What sort of calls does the NSPCC receive?
In August 2017, the charity received 558 calls or emails from members of the public raising concerns.
As a result of these contacts, 378 cases involving 849 children were referred to the authorities.
“I have noticed that my neighbour’s children are being left alone for long periods of time. They are primary school age so they do not appear to be mature enough to be left alone,” said one caller.
“I have seen them behave in unsafe ways and I heard them fighting when they were alone and I was worried.”
Another said: “I have noticed that my neighbour’s young son is left alone whilst his mum goes out to work.
“I had to go around and was surprised when he answered the door and no-one else was there. Many of our neighbours have noticed he is often alone and, whilst we do try to look out for him, we are concerned.”
One caller contacted the NSPCC about children aged six to eight years.
“I am calling about children who are being left at home alone whilst their parents go to work. The children have been home alone since early this morning when the parents left to go to work together.
“This has been a regular occurrence for the past few weeks as it is the summer holidays. They spend the majority of the day by themselves.”
What advice does the NSPCC offer to parents on this issue?
The NSPCC, which publishes a home alone guide, advises:
- Babies, toddlers and very young children should never be left alone
- Children under the age of 12 are rarely mature enough to cope in an emergency, and should not be left at home alone for a long period of time
- Children under the age of 16 should not be left alone overnight
- Parents and carers can be prosecuted for neglect if it is judged that they placed a child at risk by leaving them at home alone
- A child should never be left at home alone if they do not feel comfortable with it, regardless of their age
- If a child has additional needs, these should be considered when leaving them at home alone or with an older sibling
- When leaving a younger child with an older sibling, think about what may happen if they were to have a falling out – would they both be safe?
NSPCC head of safeguarding in communities, Chris Cloke, said: “It can be difficult for parents and carers to decide whether their child is ready to be left on their own and we know that the summer holidays can be a tricky time as people face increasing childcare pressures.
“However, it is still very concerning that we are consistently seeing a spike in August of referrals to social services and the police due to worries about children being left unsupervised. No child should be left on their own if there is any risk they will come to harm.”
The NSPCC’s helpline is available on 0808 800 5000.