In March 2014 it was announced that the government is considering whether to introduce a new offence for emotional cruelty to children following a campaign for a “Cinderella Law” from charity Action for Children.
The current laws have been criticised for only focusing on the physical effects of abuse but the proposed change to neglect laws in England and Wales would see parents who deny their children affection face prosecution for the first time.
How is child neglect currently defined?
- 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.
Speaking to the BBC, 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Robert Buckland, a Conservative MP who has backed the charity’s campaign, told the BBC the current law was outdated as it is based largely on legislation first introduced 150 years ago.
“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,” Mr Buckland said.
Child neglect was made a punishable offence by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1868. 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 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)”.
The campaign was also backed by Liberal Democrat MP Mark Williams, who introduced a private member’s bill on the issue last year. 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”.
The Ministry of Justice confirmed it was “considering ways the law can support” protecting children from this sort of harm.