The number of emotional abuse and neglect cases referred by the NSPCC to social services for investigation rose by 47% last year, figures have revealed.
Staff at the NSPCC’s anonymous helpline referred 5,354 cases of potential emotional neglect and abuse to local authorities for further investigation in 2013-14, up 47% from the 3,629 cases referred to councils in 2012-13.
The government is considering making emotional neglect and abuse a criminal offence. The so-called ‘Cinderella Law’ would see the 1933 criminal offence of child cruelty updated to include emotional abuse as well as physical abuse.
The NSPCC and children’s charity Action for Children have led calls for the ‘Cinderella Law’ to be introduced and argue it will improve care but the proposal has been met with a mixed response from the social care sector. The British Association of Social Workers is backing the move but the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and The College of Social Work say a change in law is not the answer.
Maris Stratulis, England Manager for the British Association of Social Workers, said: “Emotional neglect and abuse is every bit as serious as physical abuse and we would welcome a change in the law to make it a criminal offence.
“Social workers will have to be clear on the threshold to meet and the evidence required, but we must acknowledge that at present there are many children who are emotionally harmed and do not always get the support, access to services and legal protection they need.”
Annie Hudson, chief executive of The College of Social Work, said the rise in emotional neglect referrals was of “great concern” but said TCSW was “not convinced” a change in the criminal law was the most effective response.
“Social workers already work within a clear legal and policy framework which is designed to protect children from harm. This includes powers and duties to take legal action through the courts when necessary. Children’s social workers also work closely with the police and other agencies to safeguard and protect children,” she said.
“The growing number of referrals over potential neglect identified by the NSPCC adds further weight to the argument that early help services have a crucial role to play in helping families and keeping children safe. We know many of these early help services are being cut due to the need to make budget savings and this is undermining the ability of public agencies to support families effectively. We must also address the reality that better identification and increased reporting of neglect will result in greater workloads for all professionals, particularly for social workers.”
Alan Wood, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), said that the proposed ‘Cinderella Law’ was not the answer.
“Parents who fail to provide the basic level of emotional and physical support for their children do so for a variety of reasons including incapacity, inability, and wickedness but a lack of legislative clarity is not one of those reasons. There is no evidence to suggest a change in the law will prevent further instances of neglect from occurring,” he said.
Wood said that the law as it stands should allow for prosecutions to be made for child “suffering” and emotional abuse and neglect could be considered under this.
“Public law exists to protect children. Where a child is experiencing or is at risk of ‘significant harm’, a local authority initiates care proceedings to secure both their immediate and long term safety and well-being,” he said.
“Creating a new criminal offence would not alter the way in which local authorities intervene to protect children. Practitioners are fully aware of the harm caused by emotional neglect and abuse. Emotional abuse is the reason given for nearly a third of child protection plans. This shows that local authorities are acting to keep safe children who are suffering from emotional abuse.”
John Cameron, head of child protection operations at the NHSPCC, said the charity was referring an ‘unprecedented’ number of emotional neglect and abuse cases to children’s services and police.
“We must ensure we support children’s services and that the police are given better powers to prosecute those who subject children to emotional neglect and abuse – that is why the NSPCC supports the proposed changes to the law to tackle this issue. But a law alone is not enough – what we really need to do is work together to prevent this abuse happening in the first place,” he said.
Tony Hawkhead, chief executive of Action for Children, said a new law “would help children living in cruel and unbearable situations.”
Justice Minister Damian Green said: “The government believes protecting children from harm is fundamental and that child cruelty is an abhorrent crime which should be punished. Every child should be able to grow up in a safe environment. This is why we have spoken to experts in the field, and we are now considering ways the law can support this.”