'Cinderella law' proposals are unhelpful and draconian

Posted on Wednesday 2nd April 2014

Sue WhiteSue White, Professor of Social Work (Children and Families) in the School of Social Policy, contributes to an article in 'The Conversation':

"It seems there is an emerging cross-party consensus on the need to change the criminal law on child neglect in this country. The most recent manifestation of this new consensus are new proposals to criminalise “emotional neglect”, commonly known as a “Cinderella law”.

Action for Children, the highly respected children’s charity, have fought a campaign on this issue for some years, and there is no doubt the resulting proposals are well-intentioned. They argue that the current law, with its confusing terminology about “wilful” neglect and physical harm, is no longer adequate to address the harms caused to children by emotional abuse and neglect.

The story, now ubiquitous in child welfare policies, goes something like this: “we now know the harm caused to children’s brains by non-physical forms of abuse and emotional neglect”. Accordingly, the proposals for the new law repeatedly invoke what is in fact very early and unsettled knowledge taken from neuroscience.

This stuff packs a big rhetorical punch, but what would it mean in practice? We have no idea. We resolutely do not know how much damage is caused by “emotional neglect”, already a very loose category; in all likelihood, we never will, except in those cases where it is already patently obvious. What’s more, these clear cases are dealt with perfectly adequately under the current laws; the principal civil law for child protection in this country, the Children Act 1989, already covers emotional abuse and neglect, and the Children Act 2004 added other categories to protect children (witnessing domestic abuse, for example).

All the currently proposed changes would do is allow the criminal prosecution of emotionally neglectful carers, once their behaviour (or their absence) have been defined and their “recklessness” established. The proposals suggest “recklessness” rather than “wilfulness” as the threshold for criminal intervention, whilst at the same time arguing that the current legal definition of wilful is, in fact, recklessness."

Read the full article in 'The Conversation'