Freedom of information requests and the ways these are interpreted by the media can answer important questions and shed light on particular custom and practice, on legal loopholes and on cases of ridiculously outdated law. However, such requests often raise more questions than they answer, highlighting a clear need for rigorous research and enquiry to explore what might be important lines of enquiry.

More than 500 arrests for leaving children unsupervised is one of those dichotomous questions that brings heat to debate, but without context or detail can offer little use to parents, especially those who may be struggling with multiple child care and economic demands. Smoking debates are pretty much over now, but we can usually still find someone whose grandfather smoked 50 a day for 60 years and it never did him any harm. There will always be an exception. On the other hand there will be ludicrous examples where the letter rather than the spirit of the law has been applied to make a mockery of common sense underpinnings about leaving children unsupervised. We understand that getting a speeding fine 5mph over the limit on empty road at four am might be irritating, but it is protecting the local school children later in the day. With a population of over 64 million, where it is likely thousands of parents have left their children unsupervised at times, 510 arrests seems very few. What it does not tell us is how many were released immediately after caution, how many were serial and repeat offenders, how many posed a serious harm to their child with their arrest pre-empted another tragedy.

Emergency departments, paediatric intensive care or burns units treat hundreds of cases every year where children fell out of a window or drowned or ingested bleach etc due to lack of supervision. Children’s social services manage huge caseloads where parents cannot supervise their children because they are dealing with problematic drug use, alcohol misuse, severe mental ill health or domestic abuse. And more parents than we like to think of leave their children unsupervised because they just don’t care. The physical and psychological sequelae of lack of supervision are well documented and evidenced: these include death, disfigurement and disability. Moreover, wilful and sustained lack of appropriate supervision can lead to disruption of a child’s development, with consequences in the short and long term, implications for the taxpayer and society in general – and for the next generation as they become parents themselves.

Despite this gloomy picture, most parents love their children and provide the best possible care for them. We need to bear both in mind, as context is everything. Leaving a sleeping two-year old in a cot for a few minutes to answer the door is not the same as leaving a six year old alone for a couple of weeks whilst taking a holiday overseas. A thirteen year old alone for a couple of hours on a Saturday morning whilst mum works two jobs, is not the same as being out of it on heroin for hours. Some children are more mature than others. Some older teenagers have learning disabilities or other difficulties that mean they would really struggle without supervision.

At the end of the day this is primarily a first world problem – after all we don’t send very young children out to work or to fight in wars and we should keep things in perspective. Laws need to be applied in a way that isn’t draconian, but in a manner that is helpful and protective for the majority. Prescription isn’t useful for every eventuality, but we have to balance that with the likelihood of potential outcomes for the child.

Professor Julie Taylor

Professor of Child Protection

Institute of Clinical Sciences

University of Birmingham