Breakages and Neurological Unpredictability Away from Home

Broken Vase on a wooden floor

Broken vase

We discuss accidental damage and insurance.

Replacing the Chinese vase or the carpet sweeper
Most people would recognise that a delicate and expensive item would be best kept out of reach of a child whose behaviour is predictably unpredictable, or who has difficulties with their perception of the space around them and/or coordination, making accidents more likely. Those providing care or receiving regular visits could be expected to recognise that. But what if a child damages an item that might still be of some cost but is in everyday use? In the case that prompted this article, it was an everyday item that was broken, and it was suggested by the facility that the family should pay for a replacement. The worry was not so much about that individual item, but the fact that, with the pattern of behaviour associated with the type of learning disability that the child has, this kind of accident could happen multiple times.

No-one was hurt in the incident, however from the point of view of the carers looking after the child at the time, this might have been a worry as well in terms of the child’s wellbeing.

There seems to be no single answer to this.

Many care arrangements include payment for providing the service to the child, which some would regard as covering eventualities. When I asked two or three organisations what they would do, one local authority and one private, both said that they would not charge children or parents for breakages. They have insurance to cover for expensive items, and pay the “excess”, or the cost of an item not reaching the excess, themselves. A local holiday facility however, in addition to that, takes a small deposit in advance of a week’s stay, refundable if there is no damage.

How could the facility be expected to replace the item? Accidental damage is usually defined as “unexpected and not deliberate”. There could be some argument about whether the action could have been predicted, but if there is no exclusion in the policy that applies to what has happened, there could be an insurance claim. Again, looking at how this sort of question is answered in the insurance world, there are several ways. This is one example, from a policy’s terms and conditions: “Your Equipment will be replaced with new or refurbished Equipment of a similar specification“ (Vodafone™) . Other approaches include awarding the “replacement value” of an item, which is the cost of replacing it in the state it was in before the damage. A lesser amount might be awarded if the policy refers to the cash value of the item, which takes depreciation into account. The broken item might be quite old (and unlike the Chinese vase, not appreciating in value with age). Obviously a replacement electrical item, for example, has to be working and safe. On the other hand if the item is not very old, is it still under guarantee?

Here is another example referring to respite care, albeit from another country: “Insurance cover for accidental damage or for insurable deliberate damage caused by a Child or Young Person referred from the Ministry is the obligation of the Caregivers [i.e. those with the duty of care at the time of the damage]. If the home is owned by the Provider, insurance is the obligation of the Provider.” (Shared Care, New Zealand). As far as I have found, this kind of approach is similar to that taken around the country here.

Suppose, though, a shared care arrangement is more informal, such as families helping each other out, and the broken item is not one that the providing family is going to make an insurance claim for but is not willing to write off. When is a child considered responsible for paying their own bills for breakages etc. and when could a parent be considered responsible, even if the child was not in their direct care at the time? Technically, a young person aged 16 or over is deemed able to manage some or all of their own financial affairs, unless their condition renders them unable to (for details, see the Cerebra parents’ guide, “Money Matters”, section on “Managing money”). In practice, parents may well step in to help out as a matter of goodwill whatever the age of the young person, particularly where they have a neurological condition.

Where a young person with a neurological condition is resident at a facility away from home, this could mean that at least some of their income comes from a care plan. If it is their own piece of equipment that has been broken, and they are asking their parents to help because they are expected to be able to manage their own money but do not have enough, this may signal that the care plan is insufficient to meet their needs. More details about this side of things can be found on a website by Law Professor Luke Clements. The family’s own insurance policies and memberships might also be worth checking to see if any of them cover for a member of the family’s equipment away from home or, if it comes to that, for access to legal advice. More informally, some families might be able to encourage the young person to save up, a small amount at a time, which could go towards the cost of any accidents but could also go towards an occasional treat otherwise.


Prevention of incidents is, admittedly not always, possible using the obvious strategies of keeping vulnerable items out of reach, and providing knowledgeable supervision and training where a child who is more likely than average to have an accident or a meltdown is using everyday items.

A general holiday facility, for example, may not cater in such a specialised way as a dedicated respite facility, so if there are strategies that help at home, there may be ways of exporting these to other places the child stays at. For example, materials like Dycem™ or Tenura™ are easy to transport and can make things more difficult to move. A generalised facility that is less used to catering for those with particular behavioural issues / causes of frustration and disabilities could be pre-advised by parents, and could also seek advice from local children’s or adults’ services, or specialised care facilities.

Insurance with a larger excess is cheaper insurance. Perhaps facilities could consider taking out more comprehensive insurance, for example with a smaller excess and of a type that covers for replacement value rather than cash value, as above. They could also publish their procedures for dealing with such incidents so that these are on good legal grounds, and so that everyone using the service knows where they stand.

Related information

Accidental damage caused by children (ideas from a private company),

Accidental damage in school – who pays? (discussion),

Personal liability insurance scheme for bodily injury, National Autistic Society, (one example of such a scheme),