Emotional Abuse – A Stonger System to Tackle the Problem?

Emotional abuse during a child’s stages of development can leave them socially stunted and unable to get on with the world around them in teenage and adult life. It is perfectly reasonable and responsible of any government to introduce laws to improve existing powers to protect children from emotional abuse. I, like many others, am concerned that today too many of the nation’s young people are being emotionally abused by the conditions that they live in and not being picked-up by the system.

Recent NSPCC statistics report a dramatic rise, year upon year, in the number of emotional abuse cases. The 2014 statistical release has shown an unprecedented and unsustainable surge of the number of referrals to children services and police by nearly 50% more than last year. In 2012/13 the NSPCC referred 3629 cases to the Local Authorities. In 2013/14 this figure jumped to 5354. The number of children subject to a Local Authority care plan since 2009 is a staggering 9040. These eye-watering levels have triggered concerns among social workers, Local Authorities and policy makers in precisely how to handle this crisis.

The introduction of emotional abuse being a criminal offence is one way the government has decided to handle these numbers – but are they going about it in the wrong way? In April 2012 the charity, Action for Children, launched a campaign calling for a reform of section 1 of the 1933 Act. In their published report, ‘Keeping children safe: The case for reforming the law on child neglect’, they argued that the criminal law on child cruelty was out of date and failed adequately to protect children. In particular, Action for Children argued that the existing offence, as interpreted by front-line professionals, only covered physical and not psychological harm.

This government have planned in Clause 62 of the Serious Crime Bill: The Child cruelty offence. This clause makes two distinct changes to the offence of child cruelty in section 1 of the 1933 Act. Firstly, it makes it explicit on the face of section 1 what is already implicit, namely that the section 1 offence applies regardless of whether the suffering or injury caused to a child as a result of one or more acts of abuse or neglect was physical or psychological in nature. At the same time, the amendment removes the descriptions of physical injury and the term “mental derangement” because this term is understood as being outdated. Secondly, the following subsection defines the act of both emotional and physical abuse as a felony by excluding “misdemeanour” and instead using “an offence”. Basically, the terminology of psychological abuse has been updated, and it’s to also be interpreted as an offence.

In my opinion, the government have done the right thing. However, they haven’t gone far enough in explaining what is understood to be an offence in a case of emotional abuse – or indeed whether it is psychological abuse. The media barrage against the already publicly bruised profession of children’s social work has restricted social workers into a profession scared of hindsight. This, in theory, could force social workers to make the wrong decisions about the futures of children and react too quickly. Effectively this Bill gives more powers to the social workers to behave exactly in this way, when respectively; the majority of the statistics say that removing a child from a family unit and placing them in care could damage their emotional development even further than if they were to remain in their previous situation. The government should take this into consideration and define what is meant by the terms in legislation relating to psychological abuse, firstly to protect the children; secondly to protect the parents; and, thirdly to protect those making decisions on behalf of the child.

The NSPCC has an excellent definition of “emotional abuse” distinguishing between whether it’s either active or passive in its manifestation. But even the NSPCC admits that emotional abuse is hard to define: “The complexity of the connections between emotional abuse and other forms of abuse and neglect can make emotional abuse hard to define. There is a wide range of terminology used in the literature which means that different aspects of emotional abuse and emotional neglect are often included under a variety of definitions.” Such complexities in the individual nature of emotional abuse cases may reflect in the difficulties associated with its definition. This grey area could give rise to children being either over-looked or situations misjudged. However, American research often uses the term “psychological maltreatment” which combines both emotional abuse and emotional neglect, which I believe would be more defining and limit a case going wrong either way.

But is there an underlying issue where the government has entirely missed the point? Because of the sharp dramatic rise in the number of emotional abuse cases and other, related child deaths, it could point towards a culture, or trend in society, which shouldn’t be solely addressed through criminalisation. The liberal amongst us would argue that criminalising something creates a culture which evades the spotlight – ie. pushes it underground – and instead it should be addressed through education. If we educated society on the development of a child and had ‘parenting classes’, the generations growing up may be more aware of their children’s emotional and psychological needs. Many education professionals would also say that the UK is failing to develop, as they grow up, the character skills and resilience children will need for adult life. Those soft skills are self-confidence; social and interpersonal communication skills, amongst other character capabilities. In a globalised labour market these skills are very important for healthy, sustainable relationships and social mobility. Early years intervention could also play a major role in those most acute cases presented to social services with obvious symptoms showing a lack of that crucial parent-infant bond. These ideas of educating, aiding, developing and preparing children and parents with the skills necessary for adult life and parenthood also has an inter-generational knock-on effect, whereby children with rounded, grounded, and emotionally resilient parents will also pass these character traits to their children, and so on.

The government should not underestimate the power which education as a prevention tactic could redeem the growingly desperate situation society faces, and allocate its resources more wisely – perhaps invest more. On the one hand, the public and the media are demanding that something must be done. In reaction, the government and berated social services are doing their best to meet ease this pressure – but are they doing it focusing on the long-term effects of this reaction, not just to satisfy the public and score political points?