Emotional abuse of children to become a criminal offence

During the state opening of parliament on June 4, the Queen outlined the government’s intention to make emotional neglect of children a criminal offence. The proposal is that the Serious Crime Bill will clarify the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 to make it explicit that cruelty likely to cause psychological harm to a child is an offence.

This move has been generally welcomed by leading children’s charities. Sir Tony Hawkhead, chief executive of Action for Children, which has campaigned for a change in child neglect laws in England and Wales for the past three years, said the proposal marks a “monumental and overdue step forward for children and our efforts to protect”. “Children who are made to feel worthless, powerless and unloved by their families will now have the law on their side,” he said. He added, “Emotional abuse can create permanent scars, leading to mental health problems and, in extreme cases, to suicide. This legislation will change lives.”

Matthew Reed, chief executive of The Children’s Society, said the current law on neglect is “outdated and woefully inadequate”. “It is critical that the police are given the powers necessary to prosecute anybody who commits emotional cruelty to children which will bring the law into line with the criminal offence of physical neglect,” he added.

Not everyone, however, is quite as enthusiastic about the proposed legislation. David Simmonds, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said emotional abuse is currently the second most common category of registration for children on a child protection plan, indicating the extent to which social workers are already acting to protect children from this type of abuse.

Alan Woods, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services warned that there is no evidence to suggest a change in the law will prevent further instances of neglect from occurring. He said, “Any change to the law must build on existing work to prevent, identify and respond to neglect to ensure that in a time of increasing demand and a greater prevalence, the needs of children are effectively met.” 

That emotional neglect and abuse can cause lasting damage at least as bad as that occasioned by physical abuse is not a new or radical idea and certainly, the UK cannot be said to be at the forefront of action in this area.  The charity Action for Children conducted a study of 41 jurisdictions and found only 2 which did no criminalise emotional abuse of children and one of them was England and Wales.

There can be no doubt that emotional or psychological abuse of a child is extremely damaging and can leave lifelong scars of the most debilitating kind so at first sight any move to reduce the level of such abuse in society would seem like a giant step in the right direction.

These changes are, however, fraught with difficulties.

The first problem is one of definition. The very extreme cases where children are subjected to verbal abuse are quite obvious. Like most people I have overheard people speaking to their children in ways which have made me cringe or made me furious. On one or two occasions over the years I felt that the abuse was so bad that I found myself intervening – a course of action not without its hazards as I have found to my cost. The whole issue of verbal and emotional abuse/neglect is however, a very subtle one.

I once had a client who had two predominant modes of being. At times she was so driven to achieve that she was churning out a novel in just a few weeks, often physically and emotionally neglecting her own children in the process. These periods of high productivity were often followed by weeks on end of complete paralysis where she was convinced that she was useless, that her writing was terrible (even though everything she wrote was published and her publisher was paying advances for the next book), and that she was incapable of doing the simplest tasks. During these times she was a real suicide risk and again her children suffered. It really was not very hard to see what was at the root of my client’s problem. Well into adulthood she was suffering the extremely deleterious effects of emotional abuse experienced in her childhood. This might be hard to believe – after all, she went to the best schools, she had piano and ballet lessons, she had nice clothes and good food and they lived in a very lovely house in an exclusive suburb. Nevertheless, on numerous occasions during her childhood and adolescence her father told her she was useless and “couldn’t organise a pint of milk in a dairy”.  At times she was driven to over-achieve thus hoping to earn her father’s admiration and approval and at other times she was so overwhelmed by her childhood feeling that her father was right about everything that she felt that she was worthless. Would her father be found guilty of emotional abuse under this proposed legislation? Probably not, even though his dairy dictum quite clearly crippled her for much of her life.  I am certain he would be astonished to be accused of child abuse as he claimed in a joint session that by the dairy remark he was just trying to encourage her to be more organised and disciplined.

I also had a client, a middle aged man, obviously affluent, with one of those “cut glass” accents many Australians find intimidating.  He was a quite brilliant scholar and gifted musician who could not perform in public because of stage fright to the point of nausea. He was also painfully shy, he was hyper-vigilant and found it impossible to engage in close relationships of any kind and as a result was acutely lonely. When I asked about his childhood it took him quite a few sessions to even talk about it but eventually he revealed a childhood of absolute misery. He talked of constantly being demeaned for his intellectual interests and lack of sporting prowess, he talked of ever-present fear of physical attack, of humiliation when he cried in pain or loneliness and of hours spent in hiding from his persecutors. This person had obviously been tortured as a child and at 45 years of age he was still suffering. He was sent away to an elite boarding school when he was just 7. He had no memory of ever being cuddled or even touched in tenderness by either of his parents, both of whom, in different ways implied that he was weak when he wept uncontrollably at the beginning of each school term. Were his parents guilty of emotional abuse? I think there is not much doubt about it but I wonder whether they would be found to be so under this proposed legislation.

Emotional pain is a very subtle condition. What injures and debilitates one child will not necessarily effect another child in the same way. How are the authorities who will be given power under this proposed legislation going to discern the subtleties?

The second problem I see with this legislation is one of focus.  If parents like the ones I have described are not the targets, and I seriously doubt that they are, I wonder who is.  I suspect it is actually people who are already struggling with the onerous task of staying alive – that is, people who are themselves suffering from some kind of trauma, and who, for the most part are in the lower socio-economic groups. This is not to say that previously traumatised parents or parents who are poor always abuse or neglect their children. Most of them do not. It is axiomatic among specialists in child abuse that whether it is sexual, physical or emotional, it occurs across all socio-economic, religious, cultural, racial, and ethnic borders. Nevertheless, I am sure that even superficial research would show a large proportion of children who presently come to the attention of child protection agencies come from disadvantaged backgrounds. There are a number of reasons for this, not least of which is the fact that factors such as homelessness, unemployment and receipt of welfare bring poor families into greater contact with various authorities and bureaucracies. In addition, there is usually a greater police presence in disadvantaged neighbourhoods because of issues like street crime and drug abuse. The very fact that a family lives in certain neighbourhoods makes them much more visible and subject to scrutiny.

The big question for me concerning this proposed legislation is whether punitive legislation is the right way to deal with the very real problems of emotional abuse. In more than 20 years of professional clinical practice I have seen many clients who suffered emotional abuse as children. In all but one or two cases the parents were unaware that their behaviour was abusive, or when they were aware, mental illness, personality disorder or misuse of drugs (both prescription and “recreational”), rendered them powerless to stop their abusive behaviour. Arrest and criminal prosecution would not have helped in any of the cases I have known. Where there was mental illness or social malaise (like extreme poverty) such action would have provoked more despair and more anger. It would also have provoked extreme guilt and probably separation trauma in the children. Additionally, I cannot imagine affluent parents who constantly bully their children or abandon them at a very young age in boarding schools every being arrested and prosecuted for child abuse.

Proudhon’s maxim springs to mind.

Laws: We know what they are, and what they are worth! They are spider webs for the rich and mighty, steel chains for the poor and weak, fishing nets in the hands of the government.

Turning to the criminal law as a remedy for a social, often institutional and systemic ill is a very seductive, but insidious course of action for politicians. It looks as though they are deeply concerned about the victims, and it looks as though they are doing something. It is also more often than not a cheap remedy. This is often called a “quick fix” but in this case it isn’t a “fix” quick or otherwise. It will exacerbate an already virulent pandemic.

Child abuse, especially emotional neglect and abuse, is much more a mental health and relationship issue than it is a criminal matter. A really impressive and effective response would be the establishment of wide ranging and readily available facilities where children and adults together and separately can get non-stigmatised, professional mental health and social counselling.