'Cinderella' emotional cruelty law considered

A girl sat on a bed Current child neglect laws have been criticised for focusing on the physical effects of abuse only

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The government is considering whether to introduce a new offence of emotional cruelty to children, it has been confirmed.

The proposed change to neglect laws in England and Wales would see parents who deny their children affection face prosecution for the first time.

It follows a campaign for a "Cinderella Law" from charity Action for Children.

The government said child cruelty was an abhorrent crime which should be punished.

Social workers have a definition of child cruelty that they work on but because it is not written into law, this makes it difficult for the police to gather evidence.

CHILD NEGLECT

  • Neglect is the persistent failure to meet a child's basic physical and/or psychological needs
  • It includes forcing a child to witness domestic violence, scapegoating them, humiliation and degrading punishments
  • It can lead to life-long mental health problems and, in some cases, to suicide.
  • Currently social workers operate guidance in civil law that does recognise emotional abuse of children
  • But police are limited because criminal law only recognises physical harm

Action for Children's chief executive, Sir Tony Hawkhead, said the change would be a "monumental step forward for thousands of children".

Robert Buckland, a Conservative MP who has backed the charity's campaign, said the current law was outdated as it is based largely on legislation first introduced 150 years ago.

And he stressed that non-physical abuse could cause "significant harm" to children.

"You can look at a range of behaviours, from ignoring a child's presence, failing to stimulate a child, right through to acts of in fact terrorising a child where the child is frightened to disclose what is happening to them," Mr Buckland told BBC Radio 5 live.

"Isolating them, belittling them, rejecting them, corrupting them, as well, into criminal or anti-social behaviour."

COLLETTE'S STORY

Collette, whose father is black, was frequently told by her white mother and stepfather that she had been "a mistake".

"When my mother met my stepfather and had children with him, I was in the way.

"My stepfather was racist and she had no excuse for having a mixed-raced child.

"The result was me being treated like Cinderella but without the ball and happy ending.

"I felt like I shouldn't have been born, I'd been told often enough.

"I would watch how my parents would be so different with my younger siblings and burn with anger and jealousy.

"I was placed under the mental health act and have been receiving help ever since.

"I was finally diagnosed with severe depression, post-traumatic stress, bipolar and anxiety."

Source: Action for Children

He said the new law would not criminalise parents for being nasty, but for their criminal behaviour.

"This proposal is not about widening the net, it's about making the net stronger so that we catch those parents and carers who are quite clearly inflicting significant harm on their children, whereas they should be nurturing them and loving them," Mr Buckland said.

He added that it would also give police a "clearer way" in which to work, he said.

The campaign was also backed by Liberal Democrat MP Mark Williams, who introduced a private member's bill on the issue last year, the late Labour MP Paul Goggins and Baroness Butler-Sloss, a former judge who was president of the family division of the High Court.

'Abhorrent crime'

The Children and Young Persons Act of 1933 provides for the punishment of a person who treats a child "in a manner likely to cause him unnecessary suffering or injury to health (including injury to or loss of sight, or hearing, or limb, or organ of the body, and any mental derangement)".

Mr Williams's bill would add a further category of harm for which the perpetrator could be punished: impairment of "physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development".

Child neglect was made a punishable offence by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1868.

The Ministry of Justice confirmed it was "considering ways the law can support" protecting children from this sort of harm.

A spokesman said protecting children from harm was "fundamental" and that child cruelty was an "abhorrent crime which should be punished".

Ministers are looking to introduce the measure ahead of the next election, possibly in the Queen's Speech, but sources told the BBC it was not yet a done deal.

But it is understood this might not be the case as such a change would not require a separate piece of legislation - it could instead be added on to an existing bill.

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