According to the reports in the media the government will be considering whether to introduce a new offence of emotional cruelty to children. The change aims to update existing laws in England and Wales which currently only allow an adult responsible for a child to be prosecuted if they have physically harmed or abused a child. It would mean that it would also become a crime to do anything that deliberately harmed a child’s intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development. This covers a range of behaviours including deliberately ignoring a child, not showing them any love and failing to stimulate them.
Robert Buckland, a Conservative MP who has recently discussed this issue on radio 5, says that the current law is outdated and that it is important that our criminal law reflects the emotional suffering experienced by children who are abused by their parents or carers. According to Action for Children who spearheaded this campaign, thousands of children suffer from neglect and yet their parents or carers are never brought to court. The changes to the law would mean that parents or carers who are found to deny their children affection would face prosecution for the first time.
Whilst it is abhorrent that children suffer emotional cruelty I am concerned about the intrusion into family life and how a new law will be policed. Families differ and people have different styles of parenting. What is right for one child is not necessarily right for another which means that it will be very difficult for a professional to make a decision about whether a child is being emotionally harmed or not. For example, my two younger children cannot, through virtue of their autism spectrum disorders, tolerate physical affection, excessive talking and people being around them. To do any of those things could lead them into overload and ultimately a meltdown which is not good for their health. I’ve therefore had to adapt my parenting to their needs which means creating a calm environment and keeping interaction to a minimum. To the ignorant onlooker this could be viewed as not very stimulating. Does that mean I’m a neglectful parent? No it doesn’t. It means I am doing what is right for my children but how many people will understand that? There is so much ignorance about autism and aspergers amongst professionals that I am fearful that innocent families will be hurt by the changes to the law. It would be ironic that a law that intends to protect children from emotional neglect could, if administered badly, create further emotional harm.
There is also another potential side affect to this law and that is parenting itself. If parents become fearful of state intrusion (or their child reporting them for being unloved) then they could refrain from disciplining their child. Children don’t always know what is good for them and a simple telling off may lead to a child saying they are unloved even when they are not. Consequently there is a risk that children will not be taught boundaries about what is acceptable or unacceptable behaviour. This can’t be healthy for either the child or society.
In addition there is also the question about how far the government should be intruding into family life. As parents we should have the freedom to parent without the state telling us what to do and how to do it. In most cases the state is not the better parent because they don’t have the emotional attachment to our children as we do though I accept that in a minority of cases the state has to step in to protect a child. However we can’t ignore the fact that the state itself can be an abuser so it seems somewhat hypocritical to suggest that every parent should be under increased vigilance by the state. Of course there may be a more sinister motive behind these proposed changes. Whilst it is claimed that the intention of the new law is to protect children from abuse it could be seen as an opportunity for the state to demand that all children be brought up in a way dictated by the state. I find that a deeply disturbing thought.