Elaine Sutherland: A parent's guide to choosing who looks after baby

As Scots families are warned about using unsuitable babysitters, Elaine Sutherland offers some advice on the 'home alone' issue

The legal rights and wrongs of leaving children at home alone or with a child baby-sitter can be confusing for parents.

Understandably so, because there is no single rule in Scots law that says when it is legal to do so.

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The fact that there is no statutory age - no bright line rule - governing when a child under 16 may be left at home alone, or a simple rule on baby-sitting, is no doubt frustrating for parents.

But it simply reflects the fact that children and young people are individuals, capable of taking responsibility for themselves, and others, at different ages.

Parents know their own children and are usually in the best position to assess whether a particular child can be left at home and in what circumstances. Obviously, this is something that should never be done with babies or younger children.

As far as older children under 16 are concerned, factors like the child's maturity, the length of the parent's absence, the time of day and whether there is an adult available nearby to help out should an emergency arise are all relevant considerations.

That could mean that a particular child was mature enough to be left alone, but that her babysitting for a younger brother was not an option if it was clear to the parent that the younger brother would not accept his big sister's authority. Indeed, there is an episode of The Simpsons, My Sister, My Sitter, built around that very storyline.

As with every important decision affecting a child, parents should talk to the child about it and take the child's views seriously. In fact, they are legally obliged to give the child involved the opportunity to express his or her views and to take these views into account in the light of the child's age and maturity.

That is not something that applies only to leaving a young person alone or in charge of younger siblings. If a child is unhappy with a particular babysitter, the parent would clearly want to ask why the child feels that way.

In deciding how to deal with the care of their children while they are at work, parents should bear in mind that there are various aspects of the law that come into play - general family law, child protection law, criminal law and, as far as babysitters are concerned, employment law.

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Leaving a child under 16 years old alone or in charge of younger siblings is inherently risky, so a parent should be prepared to justify the decision.

While a parent may delegate the care of a child to another person, the parent remains responsible for the child's welfare while in the other person's care and it is the parent's responsibility to make sure the babysitter is up to the job.

Anyone who has parental responsibilities for a child - usually parents - is obliged to safeguard and promote the child's health, development and welfare. Leaving a child under 16 years old alone or in charge of younger siblings is something that should only be done if the parent is satisfied that all involved will be safe and that the child - or eldest child, if babysitting is involved - is comfortable with the responsibility.

While a parent may delegate the care of a child to someone else, the parent remains responsible for choosing the babysitter and must take into account that person's ability to care for the child adequately.

Also, if parents are in dispute over which of them should have care of their child, leaving a child home alone might cause problems.

For example, where divorcing parents are in dispute over the child's residence and the parent with whom the child is living leaves the child unattended or with an unsuitable babysitter, the other parent is likely to use that as evidence of the first parent's inability to care for the child properly.

Many young people earn a little extra money by babysitting for neighbours and most of them are probably unaware that this is covered by legislation regulating their employment.

It is against the law to employ someone under 14 years old although, of course, the fact that someone has reached that age does not guarantee that he or she is ready for the responsibility of babysitting.

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In addition, 14 and 15-year-olds should not be employed before 7am or after 7pm.

Ultimately, if a child comes to harm while home alone or in the care of an unsuitable babysitter, the parent may face prosecution.

• Elaine E Sutherland is a member of the Law Society of Scotland's Family Law Sub-Committee and Professor of Child and Family Law at the Law School, Stirling University

Comfort blanket

THE NSPCC offers advice on the home alone issue. If you do leave a child alone, remember:

• Leave a contact telephone number and be available to answer it immediately.

• Talk to your child about keeping safe at home.

• Tell them not to answer the door to strangers.

• Give clear instructions on what to do in an emergency - they should be able to phone the emergency services.

• Leave a list of trusted people they can contact.

• Put obvious dangers out of reach of children, such as medicines, matches, etc.

• Make sure that your child is happy about the arrangements and confident about being left.

• Tell your child when you'll be back, and make sure you're back on time. Talk to him or her about it afterwards.

See www.nspcc.org.uk for more advice.

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