Many journalists thought it a 'non-story'. Yet the tale of two Dorking
women and their seven children became a national 'home alone' panic in August.
Andrew Calcutt asks how----and why
Home alone 7----the circus
On Saturday 21 August, two women left their three-bedroomed house on a council
estate in Dorking, Surrey and set off to visit friends in Slough, Berkshire.
Their seven children, aged between 10 months and 14 years, remained in the
house. Two 16 year-old women were left to look after them.
After a report from neighbours that the children had been left unattended,
officers from Surrey County Council social services department and Surrey
police child protection team arrived at 1.40pm on Monday 23 August to take
the children away. Next day, at Reigate county court, judge Cook granted
an order under the Child and Young Persons Act (1933) empowering social
services to keep the children in care for 28 days, pending a full hearing.
'Dumped by gays'
Although the court hearing was held in chambers (in private), a reporter
at the Press Association (PA) received a tip-off from a local source. As
a result, on Wednesday 25 August, he interviewed a spokesperson for Surrey
social services who told him that seven children had been found 'home alone'.
When the PA put the story out, press and broadcast journalists rushed to
the estate on the outskirts of Dorking, to doorstep the 16 year-old babysitters
and lay in wait for the women's return.
Also awaiting their return, the police staked out the estate. But the women
walked into Dorking police station of their own accord. They were interviewed
by detectives and released. Returning home in the early hours of Thursday
morning, one of the mothers was described by a neighbour as looking 'bewildered
On the morning of Thursday 26 August, 'the home alone seven' were headline
news. Some reports named the babysitters and one revealed the identity of
the mothers. The Daily Star report ('Dumped by gays') was one of
many to stress that the mothers were lesbians. Later that day, Surrey county
council applied to the high court for an order under the Children Act (1989)
restricting reporting of the case. Meanwhile the women were said to be 'fully
cooperating' with a criminal investigation. It later emerged that no charges
of neglect would be brought against them.
On Friday 3 September, following a case conference and a meeting with the
mothers, Surrey police and social services announced that the children would
remain in foster care until the court reviewed the case at the end of the
In the media the mothers of the 'home alone seven' were held up as examples
of today's feckless unmarried mothers, with their lesbianism thrown in to
make the story even more salacious. The London Evening Standard broke
the story of a 'new home alone scandal' on Wednesday 25 August, and then
went to town on it in two major articles on successive days.
'They are not what you would call a model family. Two mothers, seven children
and five dogs. The washing machine lies on its side on the front lawn and
the car is an abandoned rusty heap in the drive. The mothers kiss and cuddle
in public.' (26 August 1993)
'Walter Ellis reports from the Surrey estate where the latest Home Alone
scandal was discovered...a place where what would once have been known as
the "respectable" working class lives cheek-by-jowl with the new
underclass, and the latter doing its best to make the lives of the former
a misery....The division of the community into the cares and care-nots is
obvious. A few houses are exceptionally well looked after, and their gardens
are a picture....At the other end of the spectrum, sour smells drift out
from peeling hallways and what once were lawns now resemble small patches
of the African Sahel.' (27 August 1993)
Drawing heavily on local gossip, Ellis presented a detailed sexual history
of 'the lezzy house'. There were references to 'frenetic comings and goings',
'low living and loud music', and a 'revolving door' of sexual partners including
'Tattoo Tracy'. Even the babysitters were subject to character assassination:
'one had recently been released from a truancy centre. The other had a boyfriend
who was a regular visitor to the house.'
Most of the residents of the estate I spoke to were singularly unimpressed
by this sort of caricatured coverage about irresponsible, deviant women.
Almost all had their own stories of the problems of looking after children
in a society where decent childcare facilities are considered a luxury rather
than a necessity. Many thought that the media and the social services had
acted more irresponsibly than the mothers.
'What social services did was silly', said a married woman in her forties.
'There were 16 year-olds looking after them and at 16 you could be married
and have a child of your own. The children will be more disturbed from being
taken away and put into foster homes.' Wheeling her toddler up the road
in a pushchair, a young mother said: 'It sounds like they were provided
for. Only by teenagers - I might not have done that for mine - but it's their
decision. I can understand the mothers wanting to get away. For single mums,
and I've been there, a week away is bliss.'
A married woman with grown-up children said 'older ones often look after
younger brothers and sisters'. A young mother agreed: 'Older children looking
after younger ones - it happens all over the country. I was the youngest
of five. Both parents were working so I was often with elder sisters or
friends up the road.' A young man visiting friends on the estate remembered
'when I was a toddler, my babysitter was 12 or 13'.
Many residents thought the media had blown the episode out of all proportion.
'They've got nothing better to write about', said one irate young man. 'It's
the silly season, there's not much else in the news', said a father with
his 12 year-old daughter.
So was it simply a case of silly-seasonitis? How did the babysitting of
seven children turn into a national scandal?
The PA reporter does not want to reveal his source. Chances are his information
came from someone in the environs of Reigate county court on Tuesday 25
August, possibly connected with the police or social services. The reporter
says that on Wednesday 26 August, when he telephoned Surrey council for
confirmation, the spokesperson used the phrase 'home alone'. The phrase
was repeated in statements made to other journalists. This was the buzzword
which set the circus in motion.
At this point, officials from the local authority were happy to talk to
the media, telling the press that 'the judge praised the speed at which
the authorities concerned acted' (Evening Standard, 25 August 1993).
But the mood soon changed. Some of the ensuing media coverage was clearly
hysterical. It also became obvious that the council's term 'home alone'
was not appropriate to describe seven children and their babysitters. The
reaction of the public, typified by the people on the estate, indicated
that they were less than enthusiastic about the witch-hunt. As it became
clear that things had been pushed too far, Surrey council changed tack and
tried to put a lid on the story.
On Thursday 26 August the council asked the high court to impose reporting
restrictions. While the deputy director of social services had been highly
vocal on Wednesday 25 August, by the following day he 'was reluctant to
discuss the affair saying it was sub judice' (Daily Mail, 27
August 1993). During the next week, officials remained tight-lipped. The
'home alone seven' slipped out of the headlines almost as suddenly as they
The story of the 'home alone seven' was a moral panic which seemed to backfire.
In the aftermath of the scandal, recriminations flew thick and fast between
various interest groups, most of whom had played a part in creating it.
Blame the press
Surrey police blamed the council for its overblown description of the case:
'The county council should have been highlighting the reality not hyping
it up as "home alone"', a senior officer told the Independent
on Sunday (29 August 1993). This laudable concern for moderation did
not prevent Surrey police setting up checkpoints on the estate to catch
the returning mothers, and conducting a criminal investigation into the
two women's affairs.
Meanwhile the social services department defended its initial statement
on the grounds that 'on Wednesday it was our understanding that the children
had been left home alone'. Some might find it hard to reconcile the council's
'understanding' with the fact that, as she told the Evening Standard
before the court banned interviews, one of the babysitters was in the
house when police and social services came to take the children into care.
Keen to shift the blame, a council spokesperson insisted that 'the phrase
"home alone" was something that grew in the press'.
The media also sought to absolve themselves of blame. The local press was
keen to distance itself from the national tabloids' performance. An editorial
in the Surrey Advertiser (27 August 1993) complained of 'salacious
and probably libellous' national reporting. A reporter on another local
newspaper admitted that he only heard about the story when 'News At Ten
and Carlton phoned up simultaneously. They gave us the details from
the PA'. He said he had wanted to tell the story of how the nationals exaggerated
the situation, but 'our editor was keen on a low-key approach'.
The Press Association journalist was blunt: 'it was picked up because home
alone stories are fashionable and because the mothers are lesbians, which
appealed to the tabloids. I wish I had been freelance because I could have
made a lot of money on it.' Another journalist who had worked on the story
for a national paper agreed that it was not really newsworthy: 'It was the
feeling among quite a few of us that it was a non-story which only got going
because of that bloody film and the fact that these stories are in vogue.
And if the council hadn't introduced that phrase it might never have happened.'
Only a few days previously, journalists had been competing to get their
byline on the latest 'home alone' scandal. Now their colleagues were calling
it 'home, but not quite alone', and suggesting that it only made the headlines
because such stories are 'in vogue'. But what created the fashion in the
The 'non-story' took off because it chimed with the political culture of
the new authoritarianism. It was telling that the Dorking women's moment
of ignominy followed the media crucifixion of Heidi Colwell, jailed for
six months (later released on probation) for leaving her two year-old daughter
while she went out to work.
The trend is for the police, courts, social services and other agencies
to interfere more and more in family life, using the claim that they are
protecting children to justify regulating and controlling the way in which
Surrey's assistant director of social services was quoting from a well-worn
script when he claimed that 'our primary concern is to look after the children,
to ensure that they are safe and secure'. The 'home alone seven' scandal
shows how insignificant incidents are being exploited to fuel debates about
morality, the family, and the need for the state to extend its policing
role. The case proved an embarrassment for all concerned, but the repressive
drift of social policy was clear from the discussion it sparked.
'Make it illegal'
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) took
the opportunity to announce its new guidelines on leaving children home
on their own, due out in October 1993. The NSPCC is also lobbying ministers
to look afresh at the question of 'parental negligence'. Meanwhile senior
Barnardo's director Roger Singleton announced that 'the law needs to be
changed to make it illegal to leave young children overnight or for long
periods in the sole care of anyone under the age of 18'.
A spokesman for the Department of Health was not so definitive. 'It would
not be possible to set an age at which all children would be capable or
incapable of looking after themselves,' he told the Times. 'A child
of 14 may be sufficiently mature but one of 15 not. It's a little like an
elephant - difficult to describe but you know it when you see it. Then there
are the variables of length of absence. It might not be negligent for a
wife to drive to the station to pick up her husband and leave the children
at home. But it would be to go away for the weekend.' (27 August 1993)
Rules and codes
Throughout this discussion of elephants and other variables, there is one
factor that is always assumed: the right of the authorities to make further
incursions into private affairs. Behind every debate about what parents,
teenagers and babysitters can and cannot do is the creeping tendency to
impose more official rules and codes of practice on everyday life.
The best chance of stopping the further advance of the new authoritarian
mood is to build on the instinctive mistrust which many feel towards the
state and the media - mistrust typified by the public response to the Dorking
case - and turn it into a clear-cut demand for them to leave our lives alone.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 60, October 1993