It's time for child neglect laws to change so that they take account of emotional, as well as physical, abuse.
Jenny Chapman MP (Darlington) is a shadow justice minister
Child neglect can take many forms. From the often obvious signs of physical abuse through to abandonment, and as many as 1.5 million children in the UK are believed to be neglected.
It’s a shocking statistic.
What often isn’t mentioned, however, is the prevalence and impact of emotional neglect, which studies show can be just as devastating to the development of a child as physical abuse.
And yet emotional neglect is not covered by the current criminal law. It’s time for this to change, and parliament has a chance to do this today.
The existing legal framework was originally drafted in 1868 after a cult known as the Peculiar People denied their sick children medical care believing this would challenge the will of God.
The Children and Young Person’s Act of 1933 expanded this legislation during the inter-war years, but today the law on neglect remains solely focused on the physical element of this abuse, as dictated during the Victorian era.
The Law Lords even reinforced this position in a 1981 ruling, by stating that emotional neglect was not a criminal offence in the UK.
Out-dated definitions that require neglect to be ‘wilful’ are also problematic. As neglect is often the absence of an action, proving this to be wilful can be hard. Along with the term ‘unnecessary suffering’, the legislation prevents appropriate interventions in the most serious cases of child neglect.
Social services and family courts work from the civil law definition of neglect, as contained in guidance under the Children Act 1989. The definition includes the full range of both physical and emotional harm, and is widely accepted by practitioners.
The differences between the two legal codes present real difficulties for police and social workers who need to work together effectively in these cases, and of course in the middle of this mess are vulnerable and neglected children, who deserve a better and more common sense approach to their protection.
The evidence about the damage done through emotional abuse has already led to some changes to criminal codes. The government recently announced changes to guidance for prosecuting domestic violence cases, where for the first time, non-physical harm of a person over 16 through domestic abuse will be recognised as a criminal offence.
This is to be applauded, but why is it that we are prepared to offer this protection to people over 16 and not to children under that age?
Of course we need to be careful that any alteration to child protection laws does not criminalise vulnerable parents. But a new alternative presented by charity Action for Children, and drafted by leading lawyers, child protection experts and academics, seeks to allay this concern with a modern criminal definition of neglect, as well as clarity about the threshold for police intervention.
This alternative to the current law would outlaw emotional neglect, clear out obscure definitions and align the criminal law with the civil code, therefore ensuring the police and child protection experts were operating under a commonly understood framework.
Local services across the children’s sector are suffering under budget cuts which are damaging many of the mechanisms that help identify and educate people about neglect. Research from Action for Children showed only last week that almost a third of front line professionals they spoke to feel that cuts would make it more difficult to intervene in cases of child neglect.
Eighty years since our criminal laws on child neglect were last updated, this amendment will today come before parliament as a proposed new clause in the Crime and Courts Bill. MPs therefore have the chance to finally create a legal definition which reflects the range of harm done to neglected children and which provides the appropriate mechanisms to tackle this.
The government and parliament should not pass up this opportunity to review and reform our child neglect laws and the Labour Party is proud to support a change.
Read the new report of Action for Children’s neglect advisory group, including the proposed new law here.
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