There are differing reports in the media this week, but some journalists say that new child abuse measures dubbed Cinderella Law, could take effect in the near future and change the face of criminal law forever.
The campaign for this new law began in 2010 when Action for Children commissioned selected experts to review the criminal law in this area and modernise it so that it included emotional abuse. Their reasons for doing so can be viewed here, but essentially the charity wanted to update what they felt were inherently Victorian notions of child abuse encompassed by the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 and ensure that children could be protected from all current forms of abuse.
Whether or not this law is enacted remains to be seen for now, but it’s well worth taking a look at the proposals.
As the media were not organised enough to get the actual draft legislation, which seeks to criminalise emotional as well as physical abuse, we rang up Action for Children and they very kindly supplied us with the material. Although some media outlets are suggesting that the new law would be a stand-alone piece of legislation, Action for Children have stated that they would like to repeal Section1 of the Children and Young Persons Act and simply amend the law to include the following:
s.1 Child maltreatment
(1) It is an offence for a person with responsibility for a child intentionally or recklessly to subject that child or allow that child to be subjected to maltreatment, whether by act or omission, such that the child suffers, or is likely to suffer, significant harm.
(2) For the purposes of this section:
(a) ‘recklessly’ shall mean that a person with responsibility for a child foresaw a risk that an act or omission regarding that child would be likely to result in significant harm, but nonetheless unreasonably decided to run that risk;
(b) ‘responsibility’ shall be as defined in section 17;
(c) ‘maltreatment’ includes
(i) neglect (including abandonment),
(ii) physical abuse,
(iii) sexual abuse,
(iv) exploitation, and
(v) emotional abuse (including exposing the child to violence against others in the same household );
(d) ‘harm’ means the impairment of:
(i) physical or mental health, or
(ii) physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development.
Where the question of whether harm suffered by a child is significant turns on the child’s health or development, that child’s health or development shall be compared with that which could reasonably be expected of a similar child.”
You may remember a certain Child Maltreatment Bill, which attempted to define emotional abuse and harm. This is really the same piece of legislation. We were very concerned about its vagueness and its intent to criminalise parents further, and despite the fact that we can see this is a well meaning measure, we remain concerned about its impact.
The intent as described by Action for children, is to mimic the current family law legislation on risk of significant harm and child abuse definitions, but with a sting in the tail – under Cinderella Law, parents and carers could be sent to prison for humiliating their children and failing to love them. Quite how the benchmarks for these things will be defined is yet to be seen, but it’s going to cause terrible problems. What can be reasonably expected in terms of humiliation? What standards of love are we to apply?
Whilst the statements issued by Action for Children seem to have omitted the penal sanctions involved, they have not denied their existence inside the proposed legislation. They have simply chosen not to mention it, on any of their material.
The criminal courts will have to play a terrible game of catch up, too. Whilst family law already has a wealth of case law, policy and procedural guidelines on the threshold for significant harm and how to implement it, criminal law is playing by a completely different set of rules. Even their standards of proof differ, so what now?
It’s a precarious situation. Had the researchers and charities involved in this endeavour dug a little deeper, they would have noticed that, 25 years on, the family courts are still trying to refine and define significant harm. It’s a work in progress, but by no means a satisfactory one. Action for Children had the opportunity to reinvent Cinderella’s carriage wheel, but instead, they’ve chosen to throw the glass slipper around and hope it fits.
If this measure is implemented, the question everyone will want answered is whether it will apply to social workers and local authorities? Will they be exempt because of the realities of the care system? Namely that everyone in it is overworked and starved of time, so starving children of affection is collateral damage we must accept? If that is going to be the case, our criminal sector needs to reflect on the following: if a parent has a child but is unable to meet the standards set because they too were starved of affection, who are we really penalising?
This legislation, as well meaning as it is, is not going to make things better – but it has all the hallmarks of a Cinderella Gate waiting to happen. We should be educating and supporting parents who need it, not punishing them for a lack of awareness and the mistakes their forefathers made before them.