Emotional cruelty law being considered

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Parents who deprive their children of love and kindness could be jailed for up to ten years under a proposed change to neglect laws in England and Wales.

Changes to child neglect legislation would make 'emotional cruelty’ a crime for the first time under what is being dubbed a ‘Cinderella Law’. The new law would make it a crime to deliberately harm a child’s ‘intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development’ and sits alongside the physical or sexual abuse of children.

Those found guilty would face up to ten years in jail. The change will update existing laws in England and Wales.

Currently, adults responsible for a child can only be prosecuted if they have deliberately assaulted, abandoned or exposed a youngster to suffering or injury to their health. The updated law could include deliberately ignoring a child or depriving them of love over prolonged periods, which would be deemed to have damaged a child’s emotional development.

Social workers currently have a definition of child cruelty that they work on but because it is not written into law, this makes it difficult for the police to gather evidence.

Conservative MP, Robert Buckland, said the current law was outdated as it is based largely on legislation first introduced 150 years ago, and that non-physical abuse could cause "significant harm" to children.

He said: "This proposal is not about widening the net, it's about making the net stronger so that we catch those parents and carers who are quite clearly inflicting significant harm on their children, whereas they should be nurturing them and loving them.

"You can look at a range of behaviours, from ignoring a child's presence, failing to stimulate a child, right through to acts of in fact terrorising a child where the child is frightened to disclose what is happening to them. Isolating them, belittling them, rejecting them, corrupting them, as well, into criminal or anti-social behaviour."

He added: ‘We need a clear, concise and workable definition of child maltreatment — an alternative code that reflects the range of harm of done to children and which provides appropriate legal mechanisms to tackle some of the worst cases.

'Emotional neglect must be outlawed, the term "wilful" should be replaced and the criminal law should be brought into line with its civil counterpart.’

Other new offences could include forcing a child to witness domestic violence, making a child a scapegoat or forcing degrading punishments upon them.

As many as 1.5 million British children are believed to suffer from neglect. The legal changes will allow police to intervene earlier and build a criminal case before children are physically or sexually abused.

At the moment, civil intervention by social workers is only possible when abuse is classed as emotional neglect.

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