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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 and shattered'.

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 month.

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.

'Their decision'

'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'.

Silly season

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 had arrived.

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.'

Policing role

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 first place?

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 people live.

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

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