You may be surprised to learn that the law does not set a minimum age when a child can be left home alone. So what are the circumstances when a child can be safely left unsupervised, and what if your ex disagrees? We take a look.
When is it legal to leave a child home alone?
It is against the law to leave a child under the age of 16 home alone if it puts them at risk. But with parents time increasingly taken up with work, appointments, and other family commitments, almost all parents will have to leave their child at home by themselves at some point.
Babies and toddlers should never be left alone, even for a short time, whilst you pop next door. This applies not only to leaving them home alone but, in your car, while you run into the shop. Children in primary school, those aged between 5 and 11, are usually considered being too young to walk home from school alone, babysit or cook for themselves without adult supervision, so it may be unwise to leave them at home too.
Once your child has reached secondary school, you could discuss with them how they’d feel if you left them at home by themselves, and if they would feel safe. But just because your child is older, it doesn’t necessarily follow they are ready to look after themselves or know what to do in an emergency. Every child matures differently, and it is impossible to have a “one size fits all” law. This means that you should use your own judgment as to whether you feel your child is able to cope with being left alone in the house, though it is widely accepted that children under the age of 13 are ill-equipped for being at home unsupervised.
What are the legal repercussions of leaving a child home alone?
The law has to tread carefully when entering the private realm of the home. However, as in any other area of law involving children, there is a general duty to protect the child. As we’ve already discussed, it is not against the law to leave children on their own in the home. But a parent could be charged with “wilful neglect” and a range of other related offences if they leave a child alone and it results in them being harmed or injured in some way. For example, a parent who left a 12 year old at home whilst they ran a quick errand would probably not be committing an offence, whilst a parent who left a 15 year old home alone for a week will have broken the law.
A parent can potentially be charged with child abandonment, wilful neglect, and failure to protect if they put their child at risk of harm. If found guilty, they could face a term of imprisonment of up to 10 years for more serious offences, a community sentence or a fine.
What can I do if my ex leaves our child home alone?
Before taking any action, whether that is contacting the police or social services, or applying to the family court, you should try to talk about the issue with your ex, setting out your concerns about the risks involved. Discuss the age you think this might be possible and make a checklist of things that will help you decide, as co-parents, when it would be appropriate. This could include:
- How regularly the child should be left alone
- Any obvious risks to the child
- Are there any older/younger children in the home?
- The child’s feelings about being left alone
- Does the child know what to do in an emergency?
- Does the child know what is expected of them, and what is and is not acceptable behaviour?
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