Following a campaign by the charity Action for Children (supported by Robert Buckland, a Conservative MP and part-time judge), the British government is proposing a change in neglect laws that would see parents face criminal prosecution if they deny their children affection.
Existing laws in England and Wales only allow prosecutions against parents, guardians and carers if they have deliberately assaulted, abandoned or exposed a child to physical suffering or injury. The new so-called “Cinderella Law” would add “emotional cruelty” to the criteria and penalties of up to ten years in prison are proposed. Examples of behaviour that would fall foul of the new law could include: denying a child love and affection, humiliating punishments, deliberately ignoring a child and failing to prevent a child from witnessing domestic violence. Currently, social workers have the power to intervene in cases of emotional abuse, but police action is limited because criminal law only recognises physical harm.
Clearly, emotional cruelty is abhorrent. Its impact can be devastating and lead to all kinds of mental health problems. We should do whatever we can to eliminate it and punish offenders. But, although the proposed change may indeed help certain children in certain circumstances, it should not be introduced if it becomes the proverbial law of unintended consequences. Unfortunately, emotional abuse is easy to obscure and difficult to identify. Subjective interpretation by anyone from well-meaning neighbours to over-zealous social workers could result in the dreadful prospect of families torn apart and courts filled with parents and carers rendered helpless and powerless by a system that is impervious to argument and cavalier with evidence. In jailing the wicked stepmother, we could unleash the wicked statemother.