Children were home but not quite alone

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The Independent Online
POLICE investigating the case of seven children left in the care of babysitters while their mothers went away have criticised the way the incident was 'hyped' in an official comment to the media.

Surrey police officers believe that the use of the phrase 'home alone' in a press statement attracted excessive interest. But the wording has been defended as describing the situation as it was understood at the time.

Two women left the children, aged 10 months to 14 years, at home in Dorking, supervised by two girls of 16. Neighbours told police, who called in social workers.

The children are being cared for by four foster families during a police and social services investigation to determine whether they can be returned to their mothers. No criminal prosecution will be brought against the women, who are being granted access. It is understood that at least two of the children have been taken into care before.

On Wednesday a press statement was issued on behalf of social services which described the children as having been left 'home alone' - the title of a film in which a child is mistakenly left behind when his family go on holiday.

A senior policeman said the wording created a false impression of the situation's severity. He said arrangements had been made to care for the children, even if they were open to question.

'Did they have clothes, was there food, was there somebody there? The answer is yes. Social services did a good job, the authorities acted quickly and successfully. The county council should have been highlighting the reality not hyping it up as 'home alone' .'

A spokeswoman for Surrey social services said: 'On Wednesday it was our understanding that the children had been left alone at home. We didn't know if there was consistent cover or not. The phrase 'home alone' was something that grew in the press.'

Questions have also been raised over the wisdom of splitting up the children while inquiries are completed.

Surrey social services department argues that the children were found temporary homes in their best interests, as no one knew when the mothers would return. Alan Rhodes, assistant director of social services, said: 'The interests of the children are paramount and nothing should be done to affect those. Brothers and sisters are having regular contact with each other.'

On the council estate where they live, residents take an active interest. Early assumptions that the mothers went sunning themselves abroad were quashed when it was learned they had been in Slough, Berkshire.

Opinion is divided on the rights and wrongs of their actions. Allegations fly that the children were often hungry, always dirty, and never properly cared for. Some recount tales of wild parties at the women's shared home and claim the police had been called. Several refer to the women as lesbians, hastily adding: 'Of course, it's up to them what they do.'

'There's a lot of lies going about, some people just want to stick the knife in,' said one male neighbour. 'The women haven't been made welcome here - and now all this has blown up I can't see them being welcomed back.'