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Bad law will not solve bad parenting

The coalition’s plan for a ‘Cinderella law’ against emotional abuse of children is a step too far, says JIM JEPPS

TODAY’S Queen’s Speech will contain proposals for a “Cinderella law” criminalising the “emotional abuse” of children by their parents. This means it will be a key element of the government’s legislative agenda in the final months of the coalition.

It is estimated that 1.5 million children are suffering from emotional abuse, meaning this law would criminalise more than a million adults for not being good enough parents. 

Of course they wouldn’t arrest a million people.

They’d arrest the travellers, the different, the poor, those with mental health problems, those from different cultures and those they’ve just decided they want to arrest. 

These people would have their kids taken into care, into a system with a chequered record, and face a jail sentence of up to 10 years. The implications are huge for them and their children.

The NSPCC, one of the main backers of a new law, says: “The evidence suggests that neglect is a serious problem,” but even it admits that as yet “there are no clear definitions of this form of abuse.” 

It’s extremely worrying that anyone would press to make something a criminal offence punishable by 10 years in prison when it has no clear definition. Abuse is bad, but so are bad laws.

The current proposed wording would add a further category of harm for which the perpetrator could be punished for impairment of “physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development.”  

I’d like to see a proper working definition of what this might mean in practice which is currently lacking. 

As theories on “behavioural development” change constantly, what bar would behaviour have to pass to become criminal?

I’m assuming the lack of violin lessons and skiing holidays would not be criminal — but what protection is there against creating a crime of being poor with children? 

At what point do people in difficult circumstances find themselves criminalised for being in a situation they themselves are trapped in?

No-one is going to be in favour of emotional abuse, but we need to be cautious about allowing emotive arguments to criminalise those
who are struggling or living alternative lifestyles rather than being wilfully cruel. 

We don’t want to create a situation where parents don’t seek help from the authorities for fear of being locked away for not being able to love and protect their kids the way they think they should.

The Telegraph says that parents who “starve their kids of love” will face jail. 

“This could include deliberately ignoring a child, or not showing them any love, over prolonged periods, damaging a child’s emotional development.” 

So parents — don’t be depressed or traumatised or simply not bond well with your child because the law will decide if you loved your children enough. Literally.

Association of Directors of Children’s Services president Alan Wood responded to the proposals by saying: “Parents who fail to provide the basic level of emotional and physical support for their children do so for a variety of reasons, including incapacity, inability and wickedness, but a lack of legislative clarity is not one of those reasons. There is no evidence to suggest a change in the law will prevent further instances of neglect from occurring.”

No-one has any interest in protecting abusive parents, but I’m also conscious that people are more and more willing to classify things like smoking in the presence of their children as abuse. It is difficult to take this kind of hyperbole seriously. We should not criminalise nor demonise imperfections.

College of Social Work chief executive Annie Hudson is unconvinced that a “Cinderella law” would help protect children. 

She said: “Social workers already work within a clear legal and policy framework which is designed to protect children from harm. This includes powers and duties to take legal action through the courts when necessary. 

“Children’s social workers also work closely with the police and other agencies to safeguard and protect children.” 

Hudson adds: “The growing number of referrals over potential neglect identified by the NSPCC adds further weight to the argument that early help services have a crucial role to play in helping families and keeping children safe. 

“We know many of these early help services are being cut due to the need to make budget savings and this is undermining the ability of public agencies to support families effectively. 

“We must also address the reality that better identification and increased reporting of neglect will result in greater workloads for all professionals, particularly for social workers.”

So, in a context where the government is neglecting children’s services they are choosing to demonise parents for the poverty and social problems that we should be trying to address collectively.

This looks like a socially authoritarian law that can be used to criminalise those who are not living the typical life, the traditional way, those who insufficiently embody the cultural mores of the southern middle classes. 

By criminalising the poor for child abuse many of us would, understandably, find it difficult to publicly defend those affected even when grossly misapplied or resulting in real, tragic injustices.

No-one needs convincing that child abuse and neglect are problems we urgently need to address. 

However, this in itself is not
a justification for a sloppy law that will cause more injustices than
it solves.


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