Busybodies and common sense

BBC News - Should a teenager be left to babysit a toddler?

Lately I’ve seen a few stories about parents receiving cautions or fines for “child neglect” which consisted of leaving a young child in the company of an older one (as in, a teenager) for what was reported as short trips to the local shops. In the most recent case, the mother was away for 30 minutes which passed off without incident; in an earlier one, which I found reproduced on Samizdata but which originally appeared in the Nursing Times, two nurses in separate cases won appeals (brought by the Royal College of Nursing) against being disqualified from nursing after being cautioned for similar acts of petty “neglect”. In one case it was not even the disqualified nurse who left the children alone, but his wife. Today, it was reported in the same journal that those affected were suing the Home Office.

It seems that not only are parents being punished for making “wrong” judgements on what was safe for their own children, with no adverse consequences, but that these punishments are having far-reaching consequences and were forcing them out of professions they had worked in for years and for which they had exemplary records. As the original BBC news article notes, there is actually no minimum age for babysitting, although the child remains the parent’s responsibility if the person left alone with them is under 16. In other words, people are being punished when they have not broken any law; the law is being made up by the people issuing the punishment. “Neglect” looks bad on any record, after all; it can mean anything up to leaving a baby sitting in a filthy nappy for days, or having people round regularly who were known to be violent, or leaving children alone and uncared-for while going on holiday.

The article also links to a Mumsnet discussion page in which a number of participants reported that they were looking after multiple children, sometimes for money, when they were 14 or younger. This was, I recall, normal when I was growing up (80s and 90s, everyone) and although there were some who might not have been suitable, or willing, to babysit (like me), plenty of teenagers, particularly girls, were. Of course, teenagers can also be parents themselves; are they to be deemed unsuitable to be left alone with their own children (usually babies, not toddlers)? Why a teenage parent and not a teenage sibling?

Quite apart from the injustice of people being punished for breaking some official’s ridiculous made-up “law”, there is the matter of how the police came to know about the mother’s “neglect” in the first place. Of course, someone told them, because of course the police are watching when you go out of your house to the shops, aren’t they? When did we become such a nation of snoops and busybodies that some of us will call the police when a mother leaves two children together for half an hour, and the police will take such a petty complaint seriously (rather than telling the caller, “call us if she’s not back in an hour or so”)? Recent government advertising campaigns advertising call-free hotlines so we might “rat on a rat”, meaning inform on people we suspect of claiming benefits they are not entitled to, encourage this culture of snitching and spying on neighbours over things that are really none of our business, and of being suspicious of our neighbours.

Surely parents should be trusted to make small decisions on what is safe or not for their own children, and what level of responsibility their older children have reached, and if not, the laws should be made clear, not left to police to make up as they go along. Nobody should be losing their job over a private decision that someone in authority disagreed with but which had no adverse consequences.

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