A father who left his two-year-old daughter alone for a few minutes while he went into a shop and later faced arrest and prosecution says the experience "was completely life-changing".
The case has been highlighted again in the context of new UK figures that show a parent is arrested every day on suspicion of leaving one or more of their children at home alone.
At least 105 mothers and fathers faced criminal investigations for leaving their offspring unsupervised in the final three months of last year, research by the Press Association has revealed.
Cases involved children aged from just a few weeks to 14 years old.
Tim Haines left daughter Iset in his car while he went into a chemist to buy Calpol in Evesham, Worcestershire in England.
He said he was in the store no longer than five minutes but when he returned to the car, two police officers were waiting.
He was not allowed to drive home because of a problem with his tyres, so had to carry his daughter home.
Mr Haines said: “Then, about three weeks later there was a knock on the door and there were two policemen there. They said I was being arrested for wilful exposure of a child to risk of harm.”
He was bailed and then charged but refused to accept he was guilty of any crime over the incident in 2004.
He denied the allegations against him but was found guilty at a magistrates’ court and handed an absolute discharge.
Mr Haines, 51, was adamant he could not accept having the offence on his record and lodged an appeal, which was successful.
“The judge said: ’Is that supposed to be a crime?”’ he said.
It was more than a year before the original ruling was overturned.
Describing his emotions during the ordeal, the family law advocate said: “I didn’t have any idea what was going on. The impact took a while to sink in.
“I didn’t know this was something that was going to be completely life-changing. I didn’t think I was doing anything different to what you see people doing when they drop off one child at school and leave another in the car or go in to pay at the petrol garage.”
As well as facing a criminal investigation, the original incident also triggered inquiries by local social services.
Mr Haines and his wife Julie feared at times that their five children could be taken away from them.
Mrs Haines, also 51, said: “It was a massive emotional upheaval. We didn’t know what might happen. It was a very real fear.”
'Depends on the child'
British law does not specify an age at which parents can leave children alone, but those who do can be arrested and prosecuted for cruelty and neglect if it places them at risk.
Figures provided by police forces in England and Wales following Freedom of Information (FoI) requests showed that 30 of those arrested were released without further action, 24 accepted a police caution and 19 were charged.
In other cases, investigations were ongoing or details of how suspects were dealt with were not available.
The issue of whether, at what age and for how long parents should leave children alone for has repeatedly sparked controversy.
High-profile cases range from parents arrested after leaving children for a few minutes to a mother who was given a suspended sentence after she left her children at home while she flew to Australia for several weeks.
Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming, who has called on the Government to provide clarity over the issue, said: “Potentially, someone who leaves a baby in a car seat in a petrol station could face prosecution. Similarly, whereas an eight-year old can be sent to go swimming or to the park on their own, they are not allowed to stay at home (alone). There does need to be more clarity on this.
“This is where the state interfaces into ordinary life and people’s lives can be massively disrupted merely for doing what they thought was right for their children.”
Research suggests most parents want clarity.
In November, a poll for the The Times found that two thirds of parents want the Government to set a legally binding minimum age limit for children to be left at home alone.
Justine Roberts, founder of Mumsnet, said the question of when a child is old enough to be left at home alone comes up “time and again” on the parenting website.
She said: “Every time it’s raised, the consensus is that it really comes down to the individual child. Some parents would happily leave their responsible eight-year-old on the sofa for 10 minutes while they pop to the corner shop, others would baulk at leaving a more absent-minded 12-year-old home alone under any circumstances.”
Chris Cloke, head of child protection awareness at the NSPCC, said: “Although there’s no legal minimum age for leaving children at home alone, no-one should leave a child unattended if they think they’ll be at risk.
“And it’s never acceptable to leave babies and very young children on their own for any length of time. Children mature at different rates so it’s vital we have a common sense approach that ensures flexibility for parents, as they are best-placed to know what is right for their child.
“Ideally, parents should check that their children are happy and confident to be left at home alone and know what to do in an emergency. ”
All 43 police forces in England and Wales were asked how many parents were arrested in October, November and December 2014 after leaving their children at home alone.
Figures included arrests for cruelty and neglect or abandoning a child. In a number of cases both parents were arrested. Five forces did not provide full information, meaning the true number arrested is likely to be higher.
A spokesman for the British Association of Chief Police Officers said: “There is no current legislation that gives a clear definition of when leaving a child on their own at home would constitute child neglect. However, the law is clear that you should never leave a child at home if they would be left at risk.
“The Crown Prosecution Service’s decision to charge will be based on a range of criteria including age, the period of time and the potential dangers of the environment they were left in.
“We would always encourage parents to think strongly about whether or not their child is of an appropriate age and responsible enough to look after themselves before they are left alone.”