Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Should “Emotional Cruelty” be a crime?

The government now seems to be seriously considering the arguments of Action for Children, and other parts of the children’s services establishment, for a new criminal offence relating to the emotional abuse and neglect of a child.
Introducing an offence of “emotional cruelty” is being considered. 

Lots of people seem to be in favour, including Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who at least expressed some reservations, saying that families should not be “micromanaged in their living rooms”. According to the Daily Telegraph Clegg says the law should ‘strike the right balance’. Sadly he doesn’t say how.

I have expressed concern about this type of law before. ( My main concern is that I don’t think it will make any child safer and could well have the opposite of the intended effect. Let me explain why.

Firstly it is widely agreed that the civil law (the Children Act 1989) does not need to be revised to protect emotionally abused and neglected children more effectively. If a child is subject to emotional cruelty the local authority can institute care proceedings in exactly the same way as would happen if the abuse were sexual or physical. What everybody needs to be better at is recognising emotional abuse and neglect and being more confident in reporting it so that action can be taken quickly.

Secondly there seems to be an assumption that threatening people with punishment is likely to stop them abusing their children. I struggle to imagine what it would be like to live as a child in a home in which the parents had to be prevented by criminal sanction from engaging in emotional abuse. Children need love and affection and acceptance. Not parents who have to tow the line when they would much rather be abusing their child!

That brings me to the third point, that many people who emotionally abuse their children do not do so deliberately and wilfully, but usually because they themselves are emotionally damaged. Mental illness, drug and alcohol dependency and having themselves been the victims of poor parenting are factors which make some people unable to form normal and appropriate relationships with their own children. Parents like that need help, not punishment.

The proposed new law begins to me to look simply punitive – especially if prison sentences of up to ten years are going to be possible, as some reports suggest. And there is just no evidence that being punitive towards inadequate parents is likely to make any child safer. Indeed it might make them less safe.

Many abused and neglected children do not want to see their parents imprisoned. They want the abuse and neglect to stop. Knowing that heavy sanctions against a parent might follow a disclosure could lead to a child remaining silent.

Then there is the issue of how the new offence will be proved in the criminal courts. It will be very difficult to draft legislation that does not open the floodgates to wholly inappropriate prosecutions. On the other hand juries may be reluctant to convict people who appear more needy than criminal. All that portends, in my view, to what might be bad law, either because it is too easy or too difficult to convict.

We need to ask ourselves whether opening this can of worms is what we need at the present time. With the NSPCC reporting this week that child protection services across the country are "struggling" (, I think a new criminal law on emotional cruelty has all the hallmarks of policy that distracts from the important issues. A new law might be popular with some voters and with the children’s services establishment, but it doesn’t do anything about critical issues of child safety and welfare. As children who shouldn’t die continue to do so because services cannot deliver adequate protection and help, ministers may seem to be fiddling away with a punitive snippet of policy the main effect of which will be to garner a bit of support from certain tabloid newspapers. We don’t need that.