Tougher laws over 'home alone' children ruled out

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The Independent Online
AS the plight of a ninth child left to fend for itself over Christmas came to light yesterday, Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, said tougher laws were not the answer to the growing number of reported cases of 'home alone' children.

She added: 'If the criminal law is too tough, it makes it difficult working with the family. There will be some parents who simply cannot cope . . . they need to be able to say 'help, we can't do it, having a child is too difficult, maybe I can't continue looking after this child'.'

She said parenthood needed to be shared more within the family and the community. 'We need to change attitudes,' she told The World this Weekend on BBC Radio 4.

After neighbours in Leeds told the police on Christmas Day, the girl, nine, was discovered without sheets on her bed or food. Her father had gone drinking, leaving her with a 14-year-old babysitter, who had later left. The father was arrested at his home and released on police bail.

The girl was placed with a foster family and given clothing, shoes and toys - as were the eight other children found alone over Christmas.

Chief Inspector Des Brosser, of West Yorkshire police, said yesterday that abandoned children were 'an every day problem heightened by the emotions of Christmas'. He urged neighbours to report any suspected cases, and said that if the police had more officers they could do more to tackle the problem.

The phenomenon of children left to fend for themselves came to prominence last Christmas when two American girls aged nine and four were left with a fridge full of food while their parents went on holiday to Acapulco. In Britain in February, Gemma Gibson, 11, was left while her actress mother Yasmin, 31, went to Spain.

Since the publicity generated by those two examples, the number of cases the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children hears about has grown to 60 a month. It fears many more go unreported.

Parents can be prosecuted for wilful neglect of any child under 16, but each case has to be proved. Simply leaving a child is not necessarily enough. The NSPCC said yesterday that although legal sanction was not the answer, it would be helpful if the law were clarified. It issued guidelines for parents earlier this month, recommending that no child under 16 should be left for any length of time, and that babysitters should always be over 16. It also called for better child care facilities, saying Britain had fewer than other countries in Europe.

In the other 'home alone' cases over Christmas, a two-year-old boy was found shut in a filthy bedroom in Brighton, dressed only in a T-shirt. The father, aged 30, has been charged with cruelty and public order and drugs offences.

Three children aged five, four and one found by carol singers in a Leeds house did not know it was Christmas. They were inundated with presents from well-wishers, and their father has been charged with wilful neglect.

Four children, aged one to 12, joined a foster family after being found on Friday in a Sheffield house.

Leading article, page 11

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