Why we should talk about child abuse, and not about Cinderella

Posted by Shelley Hopkinson / Thursday 03 April 2014 / Child neglect Law Emotional neglect

There has been a lot of coverage in the news this week about the positive Government response to our campaign to update the criminal law on child neglect.

It is right that attention has been drawn to the debate around child neglect, an issue that our services deal with on a daily basis. But beyond the headlines and fairy tale  references, we need to bring the conversation back to what is best for children.

There is a loop-hole in the current criminal law which does not allow us to recognise severe emotional abuse as a crime. We need a common understanding about the impact that severe emotional abuse can have on a child which we know to be just as damaging to a child’s development as physical abuse.

We also need to strip out the unhelpful language and update the law so that police and social workers can work to the same definition of child abuse and neglect, and more effectively protect children together.

A Cinderella law?

Emotional abuse can include continually singling out a child, humiliation, repeated verbal attacks or forcing them to suffer degrading punishments.

The media references to Cinderella are unhelpful. Perhaps a more fitting account is an upsetting story told to me when I started working on this campaign. A young boy whose parents couldn’t ‘stick’ being in the same room as him and who was referred to as filthy and disgusting. His mother put him to bed hours before the other children and he was persistently made to eat different food to the rest of the family, alone. He wet his bed because it was too dark to find the toilet as the light bulb had been removed. He remembered the maggots in his bed. 

The law needs to shine a light on this kind of emotional abuse and the profound impacts it can have on a child, such as long-term behavioural and mental health problems. The criminal law protects children from physical abuse. It should also cover deliberate and severe emotional abuse. All abused children deserve protection under the law.

Updating an antiquated law

The Children and Young Persons Act 1933 is still based on parts of the Poor Law (Amendment) Act 1868. Just because a law is old it doesn’t make it wrong, but in this case it just isn’t fit for purpose.

This Victorian law was passed in response to a sect, the Peculiar People, who believe that their sick children should be treated through prayer and refused medical assistance. The term ‘wilfully neglect ' was therefore created to prosecute again such cases. This antiquated language still applies today but it presents problems for child protection agencies.

Police tell us that the term ‘wilful’ is considered difficult to interpret as it’s unclear whether it applies only to someone’s actions, or their failure to act. Working with a group of independent experts, we have proposed replacing this with the more commonly understood ‘recklessness’ which applies to a person who foresaw the risk of significant harm to a child, but carried out the act or omission anyway. We would also like to replace other confusing terms such as ‘unnecessary suffering’ to bring this law up to date. 

Supporting parents

In the vast majority of cases of child neglect, the solution is to work with the family and to help parents to create a safe, happy home where their children can thrive. This is something that Action for Children staff do on the ground every day, providing practical support to thousands of children and families.

We will work with the Government to make sure that forthcoming changes to the law in no way criminalise vulnerable parents, including those who don’t have the capacity to change their behaviour. In these cases help is required, not punishment. Equally the proposals must not criminalise those who have difficulty physically or financially providing for their children.

Around the world

Our research shows that England and Wales is behind other countries around the world when it comes to keeping children safe from emotional abuse. This includes countries and states in Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and Australia.

These examples provide helpful comparisons as we consider how best to update the law in England and Wales, and particularly how to define severe emotional abuse. They also serve as useful case law to demonstrate the most effective evidence tests and safeguards to protect vulnerable parents.

Since the response to our campaign, a number of people have asked whether this change could lead to retrospective claims of emotional abuse in childhood. This will not be possible. The European Convention on Human Rights clearly states that retrospective criminal action is not possible if a ‘crime’ was committed before it was illegal. Our concern is to get child protection legislation right, now and in the future.

The proposed change in the law is a big step forward and it is right that we recognise it as a campaign victory, but there is still a lot to be done to make sure we get this right and best protect children.

The independent advisory group’s full report and proposal for reform is available here

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