12 APRIL 1975, Page 23

Children (2)

Who's minding the 'baby?

Terry Pitts Fenby

Despite extensive publicity to drive home the dangers of leaving children alone, the NSPCC's latest annual catalogue of misery contains disquieting evidence that this lamentable practice is not only increasing, but doing so at an unprecedented rate. Since 1971, when a mere 1,000 or so cases were dealt with, each succeeding year's annual report has proclaimed an all-time record. The score for '74 topped the chart again at 3,278 cases and, from the way things are shaping up for 1975's statistics, it looks as if the only advancing thing about British family life is the rate of its decomposition.

But the problem of child-minding is not without its brighter moments. Startled to find a queue of angry grannies on the doorstep, I discovered that the morning papers had warned parents not to leave their children with grandparents in case they fell asleep on the job. The indignant ladies, many of them in their forties and fifties, demanded an explanation.

From a safe distance I agreed that it was not a statement calcu lated to make friends and influence people, yet I could not deny that the offending passage clearly attributed its source to me. The story had been circulated by a news agency reporter following a discussion with me on the ground rules of child minding.

During our conversation I mac}e the point that very elderly grand parents who might be hard of hearing and who had a tendency to nod off, were not an ideal choice as baby sitters. Unfortunately, the scribe had inadvertently omitted the vital word 'elderly' and had left out the reference to impaired hearing. The implication therefore was that all grandptrents were unsuitable to be left in charge of anything but tropical fish.

The reasons why children are left on their own are not always clear cut. Sometimes, especially when it happens repeatedly, it can be a symptom of other troubles in the family and, where this is the case, then the NSPCC can invariably help to put things right. More often, though, it is for no other reason than that the dangers simply had not occurred to the parents.

Again, the rapid increase in the number of such cases is undoub tedly due to the relentless pressure of rising prices forcing mothers to find jobs in order to supplement the family budget. One-parent families are particularly vulnerable in this respect. Hundreds of children come home from school to find the house empty until a parent returns home in the late evening. Some children carry the front door key on a string around their necks; others are left to roam the streets and get into bad company. It is at times like these, of course, that young people must feel a justifiable sense of rejection; and boredom and the sense of futility are the breeding grounds of delinquency. Certainly this is borne out by Scotland Yard's juvenile crime statistics which showed an increase of 25 per cent in 1974.

Perhaps a sensible solution to at least part of the problem would be achieved if more employers were to consider, as many do, the means by which they could offer hours of work to coincide with school times. Then at least there would be someone at home to receive the kids when they leave school, Various attempts have been made over the years to make the law more specific on the question of

leaving children alone, but two major obstacles always remain at the end of any discussion: at what age would it be safe? And for how long a period?

The difficulty is that while it might be perfectly safe to leave a normal fourteen-year-old for a reasonable time, it would be unwise to do so in the case of a teenager whose mental or emotional development had been arrested at, say, age six. Suppose the law were to stipulate a period of time beyond which it would be an offence to leave a child; this would clearly make it legal to leave a child for any length of time falling within that period, but it doesn't take long for some children to get into mischief.

On the other hand, the NSPCC is always quick to point out that proceedings may be taken on the grounds of neglect if anything happens to a child who has been left unattended, or who is persistently left. One incident which will probably go down as a classic among the Society's case histories, came to light after a burglar broke into a house where two children had been left alone at night. Their parents had gone to a party. When they returned they found a note on the table. The message said: "I have taken your money; I could have taken your kids!"

Terry Pitts Fenby is the editor of the Child's Guardian, the official journal of the NSPCC