Thursday, 4 December 2014

Cinderella Laws and the Bad Enough Parent

An email about the proposed 'Cinderella law' (not news as such as it was in the Queen's Speech this year) caught my eye this week. Not because of the reform, but a blog which was opposed to it.

In essence, the proposed legal reform is an update to the Childrens and Young Persons Act 1933 (criminal law) on child abuse, to bring it into line with the Children Act 1989 (civil law) by including emotional harm within the definition of child abuse (when the threshold of significant harm is reached).

Criminal law, as it stands today, says anyone who wilfully assaults, ill-treats, neglects, abandons or exposes a child to these forms of harm which causes unnecessary suffering or injury is committing an offence. Note, criminal law only refers to physical harm (and just before the bickering starts, yes, parents have the defence of reasonable chastisement still, although personally I see smacking children to be unnecessary... but back to the subject...).

The proposed new wording is:
“s.1 Child maltreatment

(1) It is an offence for a person who has attained the age of 16 years 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 took 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;

(d) ‘harm’ means the impairment of:
(i) physical or mental health, or
(ii) physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development.

(3) 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.”

Some hold the view that this amendment represents unacceptable State interference in family life. One rather emotional blog by a barrister (I was quite surprised) talked of it criminalising "bad parents". The wording specifically relates to significant harm. I have no doubt that occasions will arise when trivial matters are brought before the court and there will be the 'good enough' parent debate, but this isn't what the amendments are about. It's about protecting children from adults who inflict 'significant harm. It's about child abuse.

I had a friend whose shoulders were so scarred that you couldn't tell skin from scarring. His parents didn't directly inflict the wounds, but their emotional abuse caused no less harm than if they'd held the scissors he used to use. His self worth was destroyed. A brother of a friend who used to bang his head against the table once the step-father had left after hours of being called stupid for poor test results. Each time he'd hit his head, he'd say "I'm stupid". He struggles to form relationships as an adult because he feels worthless. Unsurprisingly, he has low confidence and self-esteem as an adult. Others with similar experiences have struggled with personality disorder. Children's development and psychological health is in large measure dependent on their parenting (as both a protecting or harmful influence). Parents are human and we sometimes make mistakes. No one expects perfection, but when a parent abuses a child, causing significant harm, they shouldn't be exempt from prosecution because of blood relationship or some warped sense of ownership.

Comments from others surround a more legitimate concern that social services and police 'aren't up to the job' of investigating. Sometimes, they're not. Recent judgments from Munby highlight poor investigations in adoption proceedings, and it's an added concern when Government cuts mean in my area, Children's Services are being cut by 50%. Improvements in the current environment are unlikely for to come for some considerable time (worrying, but I think a reality). That said, there remain many who are up to the job and any system involving people will always have some flaws and some poor practice. The higher legal test for a conviction of beyond reasonable doubt (in criminal proceedings) compared to a balance of probability (in the civil/family court) should make miscarriages of justice less rather than more likely, as may the increased possibility of expert involvement (albeit restrictions on legal aid in the criminal court could derail that hope).

It is accepted that emotional abuse can be no less damaging than physical or sexual abuse (something upon which most experts agree and their views are supported by a compelling body of research).

So, answering that fear about investigations... "would you accept sexual abuse of children being decriminalised because police and social services make mistakes and there are problems around their skillset?" If the answer is no, which I hope, then the solution is to increase resource and training into child protection and investigation, rather than leaving children unprotected.

The reforms seem quite sensible to me. Should the State interfere when children experience significant harm. Absolutely! Will it be done perfectly, much as I'd wish otherwise, no.