‘So-called Cinderella Law on emotional abuse will not criminalise vulnerable parents’

Emotional abuse in childhood is no fairy tale, writes Action for Children's director of public policy Helen Donohoe

Neglected toys
Picture credit: Gary Brigden

There has been an abundance of media coverage about Action for Children’s campaign to update the 1933 criminal law on child neglect to include emotional as well as physical abuse.

While it’s important to scrutinise our proposal, we need to look beyond the headlines and Cinderella references and bring the conversation back to what is best for children.

Action for Children’s campaign aims to close a loophole in the current criminal law, which does not recognise severe emotional abuse as a crime. Emotional abuse can include continually singling out a child, humiliation, repeated verbal attacks or forcing them to suffer degrading punishments.

Common understanding

Scientists, psychologists and others have said time and again that emotional abuse can be as damaging as physical harm, with long-lasting effects into adulthood. The effects can include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorder, aggression, disassociation, mental illness and suicide. Something has to change.

Since the launch of our campaign three years ago, we have worked closely with a group of independent experts from a range of backgrounds including legal practice, specialist child psychiatry and social work to draft an alternative and updated law.

Now media reports indicate the government will move forward with Action for Children’s proposal, which would allow police and social workers to work to the same definition of neglect, it is more important than ever to promote a common understanding of emotional abuse and its potentially devastating impact.

On top of this, we must ensure the proposed amendment is fully understood. This change in the law is not intended to criminalise vulnerable parents or carers, including those who don’t have the capacity to change their behaviour or have difficulty physically or financially providing for their children.

In these cases, help is required, not punishment, and existing practice used to protect vulnerable people in potential prosecutions should remain. It is equally important that any changes to the criminal law remain in the best interests of the child.

We welcome the debate the coverage has raised around child neglect. Unfortunately, however, headlines about parents being jailed for failing to buy their child a pony or creating a charter for whiny kids trivialise this very serious form of abuse and distract from the need to protect children better.

Long-lasting effects

You can’t always see the effects of emotional abuse, unlike physical, but we know they can be just as severe and long-lasting. A story I will always remember is about 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 made him 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 in his room had been removed. He remembered the maggots in his bed.

The law needs to expose this kind of emotional abuse and the profound impact it can have on a child. The criminal law protects children from physical abuse and it should also cover deliberate emotional abuse; all children deserve protection under the law.

Our research shows 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.

Some have asked if the change could lead to retrospective claims of emotional abuse in childhood. This won’t happen; the European Convention on Human Rights clearly states that retrospective criminal action is not possible if an act was committed before it was illegal. Our concern is to get child protection legislation right, now and in the future.

This change in the law would be a big step forward and we are committed to working with the government to ensure that any changes offer children the best protection.

Read the independent advisory group’s full report and Action for Children’s proposal.

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