The Sharjah couple who had their car and baby stolen after they left their one-month-old daughter in the back seat of their unlocked car and went shopping have been charged with neglect.
While a seven-hour search following the theft saw Lailas Ehssan reunited with her parents, the fact that they left their baby unattended points to a disturbing trend in this country.
A study into child abuse conducted between 2008 and 2010 by Ahmad Falah Al Omosh at the University of Sharjah found that 42 per cent of children suffer from neglect in the UAE. According to the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, neglect is the failure to provide for a child's basic needs - physical, emotional or educational. The foundation includes lack of supervision, abandonment and lack of any emotional support as neglectful behaviour.
Although neglect is on the less severe end of the abuse spectrum, it is thought to have a debilitating and long-lasting effect on a child's physical well-being, and on their mental, emotional and behavioural development. Here is a look at how neglect manifests in the UAE.
Leaving children in the car
Lailas Ehssan's parents weren't the first to leave their child alone in the car. There were two incidents earlier this year where caregivers forgot they'd left small children in a car, and in both cases it resulted in the child dying.
Why does it happen?
Perhaps you don't want to wake them from a nap, or you just need to quickly pick up something from a shop. "In extremely high temperatures, especially over the summer, parents may think it's safer to leave their child in an air-conditioned car instead of exposing them to the heat for a short trip," says Naeema Jiwani, a child development psychologist at the Human Relations Institute in Dubai.
Forgetting your child is in the car is a different thing. "The stresses of modern society and the distractions of our age make us lose our moorings," says Andrea Tosatto, a psychologist at the Synergy Integrated Medical Centre in Dubai. "The previous generation did not have mobile phones and had no central locking systems. Today, we are too busy or get too distracted that we sometimes have an altered perception of time."
What should parents be aware of?
It takes fewer than 10 minutes for a child to die while left locked in a car in the UAE's summer heat. The heat inside cars can be 30°Chigher than outside temperatures within 10 minutes once a vehicle is left stationary, meaning children inside can be exposed to a temperature of almost 80°C. A toddler's body temperature can heat up five times faster than an adult's, and they stop sweating after some time, leaving them defenceless and trapped.
The UAE government recently drafted the first Federal Child Protection Law in the country. The draft states that leaving children unattended and locked in cars is illegal and perpetrators will face criminal charges if found guilty.
Having housemaids care for children
Many online forums feature discussions between mums about seeing small children being ill-treated by maids. One anonymous expatriate said: "It stuns me that people who wouldn't dream of leaving their kids with their minimum-wage cleaner in their own countries somehow believe that every unqualified housemaid has ingrained nanny potential and will transform into Mary Poppins in Dubai."
The risk of inexperience
Hiring domestic help is cheap and many parents do not recognise the importance of the early years. "It is very common for parents in this part of the world to leave their children with unqualified nannies, but they only do so out of desperation," says Jiwani.
Properly qualified child minders come at a premium. "Parents who do not have the luxury of being able to care for their children full time, coupled with the large expatriate population without extended family members, leaves many with no choice but to turn to untrained nannies," adds Jiwani.
Why parents should worry
"Maids taking care of children, in between doing household chores and cooking, is a dangerous trend that could have a serious effect on the emotional, intellectual and cognitive development of children," says Hala Babili Roumani, an academic adviser at Gulf Montessori. "The situation often leads to children falling badly behind in their schoolwork, as they were neglected in their formative years, when the child's mind is formed and their personality is developed."
It's not illegal to leave your child with an untrained caregiver, but parents are encouraged to hire appropriate childcare personnel to ensure safety measures are being met. If you can't afford a qualified nanny, consider training your maid. Organisations such as the Human Relations Institute (www.hridubai.com) offer child development workshops and Back to Basics (www.backtobasicsuae.com) offers first-aid training.
In February, 3-year-old Maryam (the last name was not disclosed) died after falling from her apartment balcony in Abu Dhabi. The Egyptian girl was being watched by her aunt who had fallen asleep. The parents had already been charged with child neglect earlier in the month when officers found the child home alone while the parents were at work.
Falling off balconies, electrocution, kitchen knives - there are many dangers surrounding an unattended child. "Apart from the physical dangers, research has revealed that children who spend more than 20 hours a week alone are at a higher risk of developing depression or anxiety-related disorders," says Jiwani.
Endangering the life of a child under 15 attracts a prison sentence of between one month and two years, which increases to three years if the child is left unattended.