Wednesday, 25 April 2012

A bad idea gets air time

I listened to Polly Neate of Action For Children , speaking on today’s Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4  in support of what is now a firm proposal to make emotional neglect and abuse of a child a criminal offence.

What she said made me angry. It was confused and confusing. She seemed attached to an idea that I cannot endorse – that in order to respond to emotional neglect and emotional abuse they must be made a criminal offence.

Professor Corrine May-Chahal from the College of Social Work, who was also part of the discussion, did a good job in trying to persuade Polly of the very obvious point that the civil law provides a very good basis for authorities to intervene in cases like this. And she made the point that criminalising needy people really doesn’t achieve anything.

What she didn’t mention is what I often found when I was a practicing social worker. Frequently children suffer emotional abuse and neglect because their parents are themselves experiencing depression or other mental health difficulties. How will prosecuting people like this help the situation? Obviously it won’t.

And there is another problem with Action for Children’s proposals. It would be very difficult to draft a criminal law that separated emotional abuse/neglect from perfectly normal conflicts and upsets that routinely occur between parents and children. If you don’t believe me have a go at drafting such a law. It is very difficult.

Badly drafted laws are a very bad idea. If Action for Children’s suggestion was adopted it wouldn’t be long before somebody who had had an argument with their child or somebody who had had a breakdown or somebody who was bereaved or depressed was dragged into the criminal courts and convicted. Imagine the cry that would go up from the tabloid press.

That would really drag child protection into disrepute.