"Home alone" and the supervision of children and young people
What's Important To Us
Children need to be safely supervised and well cared for and wherever they are, they should feel safe and secure. It is important when working with families to support this that we use common sense and good judgement and encourage them to do the same.
Most of us can remember being left on our own at home, or unsupervised somewhere else, like the library or on a bus journey, when we were children. Some of us were expected to 'mind' younger siblings on our own. We may have been proud of the confidence our parents had in us and excited by the independence. However, some of us felt frightened and insecure and some of us 'got up to mischief.'
Our parents might tell us that "things were different then", however parents and caregivers today often face the same pressures and lack of resources or support, as the parents of previous generations. For example supervision of children may be needed when parents are at work or out at nights, before and after school, getting children to and from school or other activities, during school holidays, when children are off school ill, or when playing at the playground or in public places.
Many parents and caregivers are not sure what the law says about leaving children alone and they often have different ideas about what is okay based on their own childhood experiences, cultural expectations and economic or work stresses. 'Home alone' or other supervisory neglect occurs when parents do not supervise their child, or arrange for adequate supervision in their absence. This includes children being left in the care of another child who is not old enough to provide responsible supervision.
In New Zealand, it is against the law to leave children under 14 without making reasonable provision for their care and supervision. What is considered 'reasonable' takes into account the circumstances in which children are left alone and the length of time they are alone. Parents are required to assess all the circumstances and make sure that any child left alone, or in the care of another child or young person is safe and not in danger.
What needs to be considered when assessing appropriate levels of supervision?
Parents and caregivers are required to assess all the circumstances and make sure that children and young people are safe and not in danger or at an unacceptable risk of harm. Every situation is unique and the risks and strengths of individual circumstances need to be considered. However, some of the things you may want to discuss with parents and caregivers include:
- the age and needs of the child
- the child's level of maturity and understanding
- the place where the child was left
- how long the child was left alone, and how often this occurs
- were any other children left alone with the child
- is a pre-arranged responsible adult accessible to the child
- does the child know what to do or who to contact in an emergency
- is there a responsible adult that will check in on the child.
Babies and young children
It's important to remember things can go wrong very quickly with babies. A baby can rapidly develop a fever, or choke, wake up frightened, upset or in discomfort. Even a few minutes can be a long time for a baby who is hungry, frightened or in pain. It is never okay to leave a baby alone even for a short time. Parents or caregivers need to be sure that their baby is being cared for by another responsible adult if they are unable to be there.
Toddlers and young children are curious, love to explore and can quickly get into danger because they are too young to understand the risks involved. Simply telling them not to do something will not stop curiosity and it only takes a few seconds for a child to fall into a pool, run under a car, or strike a match. Poisons and hazardous chemicals, heaters and stoves, electricity and medicines are present in almost every home and are a danger to unsupervised small children. Children who find that they have been left alone can also feel frightened and abandoned and become anxious and insecure, worrying about being left alone again. To grow up feeling safe and secure, they need to know that there is always someone there for them.
Up to the age of about 14, most children are not sufficiently mature to be left without adult supervision on a regular basis, or for more than a short time. While it can be tempting for parents to leave children alone for an hour or two after school, at this age there are still many risks. Older children may seem to be reasonably happy and able to entertain themselves, but they may not be able to cope with an emergency. Unsupervised children are at risk from household or cooking accidents, fire, poisoning, unmonitored internet and phone access and playing with weapons. They are also more likely to get into trouble or put themselves at risk of harm without adult supervision and guidance. If an older child is left alone for a short time, parents or caregivers need to make sure the child knows where they are and who they can contact if there is a problem. Parents also need to check that their older child feels confident left alone and that they know what to do if they need assistance.
Leaving a young person over the age of 14 at home alone may still be inappropriate, especially if it is for extended periods of time (such as a weekend) or the young person lacks the maturity to safely care for themselves. Parental (and professional) judgement is called for in these situations. Whilst is true that young people need to practice independence and sensible decision making, this needs to be done within a protective environment where an adult is close at hand and can be called in any emergency.
Generations of families have had an expectation and practice of older children (over fourteen) babysitting younger children, particularly their own siblings. Parents need to use good judgement in assessing the particular circumstances, whether the babysitter is a young person of the family or not. Sensible parents will be aware that young people who are babysitting can be distracted by their own needs and interests like phoning or texting friends, or internet use. This can leave small children unintentionally unattended and potentially at risk. Parents need to be sure that babysitters have the knowledge and maturity to cope with physical emergencies (like fire or injury) and emotional distress in the children they are caring for. Some over 14-year-olds may have no experience of caring for younger children and whilst they may be an appropriate legal age for this responsibility, they may not have the appropriate knowledge and skills to babysit.
Some of the things that parents or caregivers need to consider when making a decision about babysitting are:
- is the babysitter sufficiently mature and responsible to be left alone at this time?
- does the babysitter feel happy and confident about being left?
- have the caregivers thought about any risks and talked through safety issues with the babysitter?
- can the babysitter handle any problems that might arise?
- are there any areas that they would struggle with?
- who is close by who could help them if the need be?
- does the babysitter know how to contact that person urgently if there is a need?
- is that person available at the time required?
Parent Centre, Plunket or Barnardo's in some areas offer both babysitting advice and courses for young babysitters that could be useful for parents to know about. Checking whether these are available in the area is a useful thing to do.
Unsupervised children outside the home
The law is not specific to children left alone in the home, but is also about children left alone or inadequately supervised in places outside the home, such as a playground, or shopping centre. Some public environments, like swimming pools have clearly stated age limits for children being left without adult supervision. However, other situations are not as clear and can be contentious. In the same way we would encourage parents to consider safety issues when leaving children alone at home, the same applies when considering the supervision of children outside the home environ. Parents need to exercise judgement in these situations and social workers need to use their professional judgement when helping families think through issues of risk and safety.
Working with families when children are unsupervised
Parents and caregivers want their children to be safe and well cared for. Sometimes when children are left alone at home or unsupervised in another place it is because their parents cannot see any other option. Although we need to talk with parents about the legal implications and the risk to their child of being unsupervised, we also need to understand their circumstances and work with families to help them find solutions to the childcare issue. This may involve holding a whānau meeting to draw in family and community support; helping the parent contact child care facilities; supporting them to talk with their employer about flexible working hours or helping them to access Work and Income subsidies for child care.