Did anyone see this news report about the three year old who called 999 because his babysitter “needed help”?
The toddler made the call after midnight and police attended. They asked the woman about her wellbeing, yet despite it “being obvious” that she had been drinking, the officers left “because they had no immediate concern for the child’s safety”. A second call from a female caller prompted a return visit, whereupon the advice from the officers was for the babysitter to take herself and the child off to bed. A suggestion that she send the child to relatives for the night prompted an aggressive response, with the woman swearing and shouting, causing the child to scream.
A glass thrown at one of the police officers resulted in an arrest and last week, a conviction for assaulting a police officer.
The burd has read and re-read the account with incredulity. It serves as a timely reminder about the low status of children in our society, and indeed in our criminal justice system. Not only was this woman not charged with neglect of the child in her care but the officers attending thought it appropriate to leave a small child – who had enough nous to call them because he was concerned about his sitter’s well being and indirectly, about his own safety – in the care of a drunk adult. Not once, but twice.
This weekend, in homes all over Scotland, the same thing will be taking place. Many adults will be oblivious to their child’s needs because they will be drunk. Of course, some will be much more interested in servicing their own needs, subjecting their child/children to physical violence, emotional harm or sexual abuse. In too many homes, many children will be putting their parents to bed or else skulking off to a place of safety under the duvet before the drunkenness gets out of hand.
It is estimated that 65,000 Scottish children are being raised by parents who misuse alcohol. But the reality is that many of these children are raising themselves, while absorbing the kind of lessons that make for inter-generational alcohol misuse, far from good enough parenting and a culture of easy, readily available violence.
How many convictions have there been for failing to provide adequate care for a child due to being intoxicated? Who knows. There is no information available from the Scottish crime statistics. Indeed, there is very little data about offences relating to child neglect because the category is not published. No doubt some statistics are available but they remain hidden from view. Much like the problem.
But we do have some information relating to the extent of abuse and neglect, courtesy of the child protection register. Of the 3,551 children on the register in Scotland last year, 44% were placed there because they had experienced physical neglect. The numbers being physically neglected have increased by 25% since 2006. In fact, the numbers of children experiencing physical injury, physical neglect or emotional abuse are all on the rise – for emotional abuse the rise is a quite staggering 107% in four years. It is likely that alcohol misuse played a role in a significant number of these cases, though we know little about the true impact of parental alcohol misuse on the short and long term outcomes for their children.
Few of us these days think it acceptable to drive while under the influence of alcohol. It has taken years of public education and policing campaigns to get this message across, as well as to emphasise the risks and consequences of such behaviour. We now know that alcohol – even just a couple of glasses of wine – impairs the judgement, encourages us to behave more recklessly behind the wheel, and may result in us putting ourselves and others at serious risk of harm or injury. So how can it be different in relation to children?
This single case of the drunken babysitter, which garnered headlines for a day, is undoubtedly the tip of the iceberg. But it demonstrates, in the starkest possible way, how far Scotland as a nation has to travel on this issue. We know it’s wrong to be drunk in charge of a car; isn’t it time to make it socially, legally and morally unacceptable to be drunk in charge of a child?