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NSPCC prepares for rise in calls about children left home alone as schools break up

Lizz Banks
Authored by Lizz Banks
Posted: Tuesday, July 26, 2022 - 18:46
  • In 2020/21, the charity’s helpline made 464 referrals to agencies in the South West, following contacts about children being left without supervision of an adult – a 39% increase from the previous year
  • There's no legal age a child can be left home alone but it’s against the law to leave a child alone if it puts them at risk
  • Cost-of-living crisis expected to put additional pressure on families this summer
  • NSPCC and Blakemore Retail share guidance to help parents decide whether children are ready to stay home or go out alone

The NSPCC has launched a campaign urging parents and carers to think carefully about leaving children home alone or unsupervised as the summer holidays start in England and Wales. 

Each year the leading children’s charity receives the highest number of contacts from adults about this issue during the warmer months, seeing peaks when children break up for the summer holidays and are outside the home for extended periods. The NSPCC is preparing for another spike this summer.

During the past two years more than two in five contacts took place across the months of May, June, July and August.

The guidance also comes as the NSPCC reveals that it made a higher number of referrals to external agencies in the South West during the pandemic than in the previous year. In 2020/21 it made 464 referrals – a 39% increase from 2019/20.

A referral to agencies, such as the police and social services, is made when the NSPCC considers that information given in a contact to the Helpline warrants further investigation. While some of the contacts to the Helpline are from adults simply seeking guidance on when it is appropriate to leave children unattended, in 2020/21, a worrying 60% of contacts from across the UK resulted in referrals.

*The charity says a possible explanation for the increase in contacts and referrals during the pandemic was that more people were working from home and more aware of their neighbours and what was happening with the people around them.

As the country moves beyond the pandemic and the number of referrals made by the NSPCC Helpline start going back to pre-pandemic levels (324 in 2021/22) the cost-of-living crisis is now the pressing issue affecting families. Much like during the pandemic, the charity is encouraging members of the public to continue to look out for the children in their communities.

During the 2020 lockdown, a neighbour called the NSPCC Helpline and said:

“I am concerned about a 9-year-old who is regularly being left unsupervised whilst her mother goes to work. The mother does shift work so can be out of the house at different times of the day or night.  The family have dogs and they are left with the child unsupervised.  I know the child is alone because I see the mother leaving the house for work and the child looking out of the bedroom window.”

There's no legal age a child can be left home alone as every child matures differently, but it’s against the law to leave a child alone if it puts them at risk. A child who doesn’t feel comfortable shouldn’t be left alone.

Parents trying to work and manage the 6-week school break can be challenging, particularly in light of soaring child care costs in recent years*. Between work, appointments and other family commitments, every parent will have to leave their child home alone at some point.

As children get older, it’s common for them to want more freedom and learn to be independent. This is an important part of growing up, but there can be a lot to think about for parents. 

The NSPCC and SPAR store operator Blakemore Retail have teamed up to help parents decide if their children are ready to stay home or go out alone.

  • Are they ready to be left home alone? Think about if your child can deal with risks, will they behave responsibly, will they be safe. And perhaps most importantly, how does your child feel about this idea?
  • If your child is going out alone make sure you know where they want to go, what they want to do, who they will be with and how far will they travel. This will help you to make the right decision.
  • Will they be safe and sound? If they are staying at home, make sure they have a parent or carer’s number, another trusted adult’s number and have a trusted adult in mind that they could go to in person, in an emergency. If they are going out alone make sure they know their full name, address, and have two trusted adults’ phone numbers.
  • 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
  • Talk to your child early on about scenarios they might face and how to stay safe.Ask them what they’d do and how they feel about them.
  • Set clear boundaries to help you and your child know how they should behave when you’re not around. It’s a good idea to agree on some house or outside rules that suit their maturity before you leave them alone. Give your child a chance to build their independence by building your trust.

Blakemore Retail, which runs 263 SPAR stores in England and Wales, is supporting the NSPCC’s ‘Home or Out Alone’ campaign, which aims to help parents make the right decision about leaving their children at home safely or letting them leave the house unsupervised.

A new quiz is also available to help provide families with helpful guidance to keep their children safe.

Kam Thandi, NSPCC National Services Director said:

“As the school summer holidays begin, we want to encourage parents and carers to think carefully about leaving children home alone or unsupervised, and also remind members of the public to look out for the children in their communities. 

“During the pandemic we saw an increase in the contacts we received about this issue, as many people were at home and more aware of what the people around them were doing. 

“The summer months can present a particularly challenging time for parents and carers when it comes to making the decision about whether to let their children stay home alone or go out unsupervised. We launched our Home or Out Alone campaign with Blakemore Retail to help them navigate these decisions that we know can be tricky.”

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