Despite no mention in Wednesday’s Queen’s speech – Head of Public Affairs and Campaigns Matthew Downie explains why the out-dated law on child neglect must be reformed this parliamentary session:
Child neglect is the most common form of child abuse in the UK. As many as 1.5 million children in the UK are believed to be neglected in some way, and it is the most common reason for a child protection referral.
Neglect can take many forms, from the often obvious signs of physical abuse through to abandonment. What often isn’t mentioned, however, is the prevalence and impact of emotional neglect, which can be just as devastating to the development of a child as physical abuse.
And yet emotional neglect is not covered by the current criminal law. It’s time for this to change.
The existing legal framework was originally drafted in 1868 after a cult known as the Peculiar People denied their sick children medical care believing this would challenge the will of God.
The Children and Young Person’s Act of 1933 expanded this legislation during the inter-war years, but today the law on neglect remains solely focused on the physical element of this abuse, as dictated during the Victorian era.
Social services and family courts work from the civil law definition of neglect, as contained in guidance under the Children Act 1989. The definition includes the full range of both physical and emotional harm, and is widely accepted by practitioners.
The differences between the two legal codes present real difficulties for police and social workers who need to work together effectively in these cases, and of course in the middle of this mess are vulnerable and neglected children, who deserve a better and more common sense approach to their protection.
The evidence about the damage done through severe emotional abuse has already led to some changes to criminal codes. The government recently announced changes to guidance for prosecuting domestic violence cases, where for the first time, non-physical harm of a person over 16 through domestic abuse will be recognised as a criminal offence.
This is to be applauded, but why is it that we are prepared to offer this protection to people over 16 and not to children under that age?
Of course we need to be careful that any alteration to child protection laws does not criminalise vulnerable parents. But a new alternative presented by charity Action for Children, and drafted by leading lawyers, child protection experts and academics, seeks to allay this concern with a modern criminal definition of neglect, as well as clarity about the threshold for police intervention.
This alternative to the current law would cover severe emotional neglect, clear out obscure definitions and align the criminal law with the civil code, therefore ensuring the police and child protection experts were operating under a commonly understood framework.
Eighty years since our criminal laws on child neglect were last updated this parliamentary session provides a chance for us to right a longstanding wrong by protecting neglected children from the full range of harm that is done to them.
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