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Would you leave your child alone?

Professor Carolyn Hamilton

Scenario 1: You have three children under 5. You go shopping at the supermarket for 20 minutes, leaving them asleep in their car seats with the doors unlocked to avoid their movements triggering the car alarm.

This scenario is not advisable. It is an offence under section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 to neglect or abandon a child under the age of 16 for whom a parent or carer has responsibility, but the law gives no detail of what amounts to neglect or abandonment. Prosecution and/or conviction depend largely on the circumstances. The punishment can range from a fine to ten years’ imprisonment.

The court is to likely to take into account the age and maturity of the child, for how long he or she was left alone and the arrangements to ensure his or her safety. Here, the children might get out of the car and wander on to the road – or anybody could remove a child from the car.

If the car doors were locked the children might be safer, but then what might happen if the children became very distressed in an enclosed space? Technically, children should not be left alone like that until they are 16. Five minutes might be acceptable in a locked car; 20 minutes is too long.

Scenario 2: You have 18-month old twins. You put them down for their afternoon nap in their cots, then dash down the road to get a pint of milk for a cup of tea. You are gone for less than ten minutes.

In this scenario, if the twins were asleep in cots and couldn’t get out, a parent might reasonably decide to leave them. If they were able to walk about – for instance, leaving a child of 6 awake and alone at home for ten minutes – it would be more problematic. You would need to worry not only about intruders but also about accidents; the possibility of a child burning some toast, for example, and starting a fire.

For a child of about 12 and above, it would depend largely on his or her maturity and factors such as whether he or she had been left at home alone before. Obviously it would be much better to have neighbours who could check up, and doors should be locked. I would never recommend leaving a child of any age for very long, but for children in cots, ten minutes is probably safe enough. I wouldn’t say this situation is desirable but it’s better than scenarios 1 and 3.

Scenario 3:You have three children aged 10, 8 and 6. You go out for dinner, leaving them in bed at home. You tell the eldest to ring you on your mobile if there are any problems.

This would be a real matter for concern. If the parents were out for dinner, they might easily be gone for a few hours. Even if this was for lunch and not for dinner (so in the middle of the day) it would still be highly undesirable.

If they were very close by and checking on the children often, the situation would be different – but leaving three children of that age alone for several hours would still be extremely unadvisable, as the potential risks are simply too great unless you can come back and check on them often.

Even if the eldest child could be relied on to use the phone, if the parent could not get back within 15 minutes there is a possibility that he or she might be charged with abandonment.

If a neighbour was there in case of emergency it would certainly be better, but because of the length of time involved it would still be very ill-advised.

Scenario 4:You go out for dinner in a hotel complex on holiday abroad, leaving a child aged 3 and twins aged 18 months in a locked room. You return to check on them every half hour.

If the parents have taken all the risks into account and decided that it is safe to leave the children, this would probably be reasonable. If the children were awake or a bit older and able to wander around, or potentially even to open the door to an intruder, perhaps not. But asleep, with the door locked and people constantly checking up on them, it is likely to be reasonable.

You should be checking on them very regularly. I don’t think it’s any less safe in Continental Europe than it is here. Leaving children alone in this manner is not desirable, but parents have to balance the demands of life and will probably have to consider such issues regularly.

A parent needs to ensure that children are safe if they are left alone. Leaving them for a short while, asleep, in a locked room with regular checks is acceptable. Leaving them for two hours, or with unlocked doors, is not.

Professor Hamilton is Consultant to UN Crime Prevention Branch on juvenile justice and is working with the Ad-Hoc Expert Group on the Application of United Nations Standards and Norms. This group is responsible for the development of the current round of questionnaires for the UN Crime Survey. The work of the group is guided by ECOSOC resolution 2003/30 on the "United Nations standards and norms in crime prevention and criminal justice".

From 2001-2003, Professor Carolyn Hamilton was consultant to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Juvenile Justice. As part of this role, Professor Hamilton prepared two discussion papers. The first paper examined the impact of public perception on the implementation of the juvenile justice provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989. The second paper explored the collection and use of juvenile justice statistics in relation to the reporting obligation of States to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.

For more on the subject you can read the "Right to Life" in PDF, an insight on the European Convention and as well "Investigating Potential Child Abduction Cases" a FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin in full, here I just transcribed what seemed relevant for understanding common procedures worldwide.*

A Developmental Perspective

The concern that people share for the welfare of their own children, as well as for the children of others, illustrates the fundamental value children hold in society. Few relationships are as powerful or emotional as those between adults and children. Parents, families, neighborhoods, and communities strive continually to create programs and practices that provide their children with healthy, secure environments where they can thrive and grow. Due to their physical, emotional, and cognitive dependence on adults, however, children remain uniquely susceptible to abuse, neglect, and exploitation, which make them vulnerable as victims for a variety of differing offenders who abuse and exploit them for such reasons as sex, revenge, and profit. Occasionally, this maltreatment results in missing, abducted, or allegedly abducted children.

The value people place on children makes missing child incidents among the most widely publicized cases encountered by law enforcement. The reported abduction or mysterious disappearance of a child captivates families, neighborhoods, communities, and entire nations. In the 1980s, several highly publicized stranger-perpetrated child abduction cases heightened public and parental concerns and fears and led to the widespread belief that stranger abductions had become increasingly common. This awareness caused parental groups, civic organizations, political representatives, and government agencies to support programs focusing on missing children.


While public fears and perceptions focused on stereotypical stranger abduction, in which an older adult male from outside the community preyed randomly upon an unsuspecting child for sexual gratification, initial research findings painted a different picture. Studies found that abductions by family members represented the most prevalent child abduction type, ranging from 163,200 to 354,100 cases annually. [1] In contrast, the national incidence of child abductions perpetrated by nonfamily members ranged from 3,200 to 4,600 cases annually, with only 62 percent of these cases committed by strangers. [2] Additionally, long-term stranger abductions, where serious risk of victim mortality existed, only accounted for between 200 to 300 cases annually. These statistics included children ranging in age from birth to 18 years and, therefore, displayed diverse victim characteristics and vulnerabilities. Stranger abductions, although a serious and potentially lethal problem, did not appear as widespread as experts beli eved originally. More recent child abduction and child homicide research generally supports these findings.


Contemporary analyses of nationally representative child abduction patterns demonstrate that law enforcement and criminal justice professionals can better understand the dynamics of child abduction by assessing child victimization from a developmental perspective. [3] Simply put, as children progress through life they become more physically and emotionally mature, more independent, and more mobile. As they age, their attributes, vulnerabilities, and accessibility change, and they gain exposure to and become desired by different types of abductors who exploit them for different reasons. Younger, more constantly monitored children (birth to 5 years), for example, generally have a greater risk of victimization by parents or other trusted caregivers who have access to their protective confines. More independent school-age children who experience lapses in supervision by caretakers are more accessible and more often victimized by acquaintances or strangers outside their homes. [4] Thus, during their lives, childr en face different abduction and victimization scenarios and risks.


Why are children abducted? Interpretation of offender motivations and behaviors often is complicated, [5] particularly in abduction cases where children simply seem to vanish. In such cases, the ensuing investigation involves searching for both the victim and an offender who may be a parent, relative, friend, acquaintance, or total stranger. This differs from other scenarios, such as parental abductions, where the identity of the offender and sometimes the location of the abducted child are known, and the offender's motivation is more obvious. [6] Even in the most clear-cut cases, however, law enforcement may have difficulty determining exactly why the offender abducted the victim. The apprehension of the offender and a reliable confession may not even provide law enforcement with the true underlying motive. However, an accurate understanding of the behaviors and intentions of offenders who abduct children and how these crime characteristics change as potential victims get older can provide investigators wit h important insights early in a developing case and allow them to use their resources more effectively.

Research and investigative experience have shown that family abductions, motivated by domestic discord and custody disputes, overwhelmingly represent the most frequent type of child abduction. Short-term, nonfamily incidents where abductors release or return children, often before anyone knows they are missing, constitute another type of child abduction. Short-term cases often involve sexual molestation. Long-term, nonfamily abductions are the least common and those that result in child homicide happen rarely. These cases frequently come to the attention of police as missing child reports and rarely result in quick resolution. Motivations for long-term, nonfamily abductions include: sexual gratification; retribution (e.g., revenge or "collecting" on an unpaid debt); financial gain (e.g., ransom or extortion); desire to kill (this, alone, is reported to motivate and gratify some offenders); and, maternal desire (where an offender desires to possess a child and abducts primarily newborns and infants). [7] Sexua lly motivated abductions represent the most common type of nonfamily abduction and classically pose the highest risk of victim mortality. [8] Long-term, nonfamily child abduction cases shock the public conscience and, because of their potentially lethal nature, law enforcement must conduct expeditious, informed, and well-managed investigations.


Investigators also encounter cases involving false allegations of abduction. Typically, a parent or primary caregiver perpetrates these cases. They report a child as missing or abducted to hide their involvement in the child's death or conceal their knowledge of the child's location. Such was the case of Susan Smith, who fastened her two sons into their car seats and watched the car coast into a lake. Subsequently, Smith told police that an armed carjacker had taken both her car and her children. A timely and thorough investigation conducted by experienced law enforcement personnel ultimately proved the fallacy of this allegation. In another case, a mother reported her teenage daughter missing and claimed to have received a telephone ransom demand. An intensive 3-day investigation located the daughter at a friend's house where she had been staying with her mother's knowledge and approval. An overwhelming need for attention appeared to motivate the mother's false report.


Most long-term abductions are reported to the police, not as abductions, but as missing children. The majority of the 450,000 children reported to police as missing each year are lost or have run away. [9] Most of these children are found quickly and law enforcement resolves their cases with minimal investigative effort. Consequently, determining whether someone has legitimately abducted a child, particularly if the missing child is a teenager, often is not obvious or easy. In short, because most missing children are not abducted and most abducted children are not missing, investigative complacency becomes a statistically understandable response. The investigation of a missing child who possibly was abducted, however, constitutes the most serious and perplexing challenge facing law enforcement agencies. It can rapidly overwhelm and exhaust all available resources (e.g. financial, personnel, logistical) and impose heavy personal and professional burden on investigators, support personnel, and management. Becau se nonfamily abductions are comparatively rare, law enforcement agencies often find themselves unprepared for such demanding and emotionally taxing investigations. [10]

(...)The collective research, training, and case experience of CIRG's child abduction experts have resulted in child abduction typologies. These descriptions exclude family abduction cases centered in custody disputes. They illustrate the patterns typically seen in cases where a child is reported to police as missing and potentially abducted. These typologies may not represent all child abduction incidents.

(...)Infants (1 to 12 months)

As with newborns, infants also frequently are victims of either emotion-based crimes or maternal desire abductions. However, maternal desire offenses become progressively less common as these children age and emotion-based cases predominate. Because maternal desire abductors generally require newborn victims to play a part in their elaborate maternal fantasy, an infant more than a few months of age may be too old for their purposes. When compared to newborn victims, the dynamics of the infant maternal desire offenses are similar. However, for infant-age victims, who no longer require hospitalization, many abductions occur outside of a clinical setting. Although offenders sometimes use ruses, the risk of violence to mothers, fathers, and other primary caregivers increases. [14]

The most common abduction scenarios involving infant-age children are emotion-based. In such cases, male infants face a higher risk of victimization than females. Generally, males (particularly biological fathers) perpetrate these emotion-based offenses. Offenders often impulsively kill victims in their residences in personal ways that require close physical contact (e.g., blunt force trauma, suffocation) and subsequently report them to the police as missing. Typically, they dispose of victims close to their home (within 1 mile of the offender's residence) in a secure location familiar to the offender. The remains of most victims are found outside, hidden or buried, and in many cases, the offender has placed the child in some type of container (e.g., plastic bag, box) prior to disposal. Most emotion-based offenses occur impulsively and lack detailed planning. The frequent recovery of the victim's remains near the home may reflect either the offender's reluctance to leave familiar territory or, more likely, a hastily prepared disposal plan.

Toddlers (1 to 2 years)

Like their infant counterparts, toddlers are victimized primarily for emotion-based reasons, and the characteristics of these crimes are similar. Although rare, toddlers also are victims of sexually motivated abductions. Like infants, male toddlers face a slightly higher risk of abduction in emotion-based offenses, with offenders usually being biological parents and other family members. The mother's boyfriends and ex-boyfriends also are common offenders. Similar to other emotion-based offenses, these cases appear impulsive and lack extensive planning. [15] Furthermore, precipitating domestic stressors that result in displaced aggression frequently precede them. Accessibility to the victim remains a critical factor in the toddler abduction equation. Toddlers constantly depend on others for their supervision and care. Thus, strangers generally have very limited access to these children.
Sexually motivated abductions of toddlers are rare, which may be due, in part, to the physical immaturity and undesirability of these children as sexual objects. When they occur, however, male offenders with ready access to the locations and routine activities of these children are the primary perpetrators.

Preschool Children (3 to 5 years)

When compared to cases involving toddler victims, emotion-based offenses are less common in preschool children. Sexual crimes, however, occur more frequently. Toddlers, whose increased mobility and desire for independence make them more difficult to control, may cause their caregivers increased stress and frustration. [16] Preschoolers, on the other hand, are often more physically and emotionally developed. This generally reduces dependence and pressure on parents and primary caregivers, decreasing the number of parental emotion-based incidents. Along with their physical and emotional development, however, preschoolers exhibit greater autonomy and experience more prolonged lapses in adult supervision. For example, parents often allow preschoolers to play in their front yards with minimal supervision, providing strangers and acquaintances greater access to these children. Increased ease of access, greater physical maturity, and inherent vulnerability may account for the increase in sexual and profit crimes in volving preschool victims as compared to toddlers. Not surprisingly, strangers and acquaintances are often the perpetrators of sexually motivated and profit-based offenses in preschool children.

For preschoolers, emotion-based crimes are predominately familial with biological parents (primarily fathers) and parental boyfriends/girlfriends commonly responsible for these offenses. Offenders are most often males and their victims primarily female, which differs from the slightly higher male victim population in the infant and toddler groups. In cases where offenders kill victims, approximately one-half dispose of the body within 100 yards of the abduction site (almost always the victim and offender's shared residence). However, some offenders who kill their victim transport the remains greater distances, attempting to separate themselves in time and space from the abduction site.

Sexually motivated abductions, while more common than in toddlers, occur less frequently in preschoolers than emotion-based crimes. When they occur, however, females are usually victims. The race of both the victim and the offender closely matches the demographics of the area where the abduction takes place. Usually, offenders are male and an acquaintance of the victim (commonly neighbors). This represents a drastic departure from the large number of family offenders found in emotion-based preschool cases. Again, the accessibility of the victim appears to be a critical factor in dictating victim-offender relationship.(...)

Read the remaining article in the link given above.

On a final note: Would you leave your child alone?

* this articles were written by several authors, their names are inside each document.

Thank you

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