The heart sinks at news this week of a government initiative to expand yet further the already vast empire of victimhood.

In Britain we have been told to expect a new law that will combat child abuse from a different angle, raising the spectre of yet another bunch of compo-seeking losers leaping at the chance to escape any degree of personal responsibility for their adult descent into drug addiction, gambling, dog-shagging, morris dancing, baking off, and suchlike depravities – who will inevitably be lauded for their “courage” by legions of counsellors, whose job it will be to keep these weaklings wallowing permanently in their victim status instead of getting over it.

Well, that was my reflexively splenetic reaction to the proposed new “Cinderella Law”, taken up by government following a campaign by the charity Action for Children. The loud-mouthed Pub Bore in me, the Grumpy Old Man who would have a knee-jerk response if only his knees would still respond, did not like the idea at all. Like it or not, though, I was forced, after an appropriate Consultation Period with myself, to admit the possibility that it might not be an entirely bad idea.

So, what is it, this idea?

The Cinderella Law would be a new offence of emotional cruelty to children. A BBC report said the proposed change to the law in England and Wales on neglect “would see parents who deny their children affection face prosecution for the first time”. On the face of it this seems crazy because love cannot be commanded, except perhaps by God: “Love thy neighbour as thyself”. The heart can be exhorted and inspired, but not compelled on pain of criminal sanctions. Imagine the Custody Sergeant reading out the offence: “You are hereby charged that between the dates specified, in the County of Bullshitshire, you did knowingly and wilfully fail to love your twin sons, Darth Vader and Voldermort…”

Nevertheless, although we may question whether the criminal law is the right tool for the job – a question to which I will return – what now seems beyond doubt in the face of a mountain of evidence, is that child abuse including neglect, emotional cruelty, physical and sexual abuse (when the latter is truly abusive i.e. coerced) can be extremely damaging and often is.

The BBC story cites “Collette”, whose father is black. She was frequently told by her white mother and stepfather that she had been “a mistake” and that she was “in the way”.

“My stepfather was racist and she had no excuse for having a mixed-raced child. The result was me being treated like Cinderella but without the ball and happy ending. I felt like I shouldn’t have been born, I’d been told often enough.”

This constant denigration unsurprisingly got her down and led to mental health problems, including diagnoses of severe depression, post-traumatic stress, bipolar disorder and anxiety.

In another account, from an interview on BBC Radio 5 Live, “Susan” said she was physically and sexually abused by her foster family but the emotional cruelty she suffered caused the most long-term damage:

“They never once cuddled me, they never once told me they loved me… that has been by far the worst abuse that I suffered.”

There is powerful evidence of a strong association between emotional abuse and truly heavy duty mental illness going way beyond mild depression or anxiety. A meta-analysis by Varese et al. of 41 studies into the impact of childhood adversity on the risk of psychosis (mostly schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) was published in 2012. As a brief review in This Week put it:

The findings were staggering: Children who were emotionally abused were 12 times more likely to develop schizophrenia than other children. The survey also found that 90% of children who had suffered emotional maltreatment early in life went on to develop some form of mental illness, such as depression or bipolar disorder.

Nor is the available evidence merely an association. There is now an extensive body of neurological evidence showing that stressful early experiences including emotional upset, especially of a chronic nature, causes damaging changes in the brain.

Coming back to the law, the Children and Young Persons Act of 1933 provides for the punishment of a person who treats a child “in a manner likely to cause him unnecessary suffering or injury to health (including injury to or loss of sight, or hearing, or limb, or organ of the body, and any mental derangement)”. The Cinderella Law would add a further category of harm for which the perpetrator could be punished: impairment of “physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development”.

Child neglect was made a punishable offence by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1868. Neglect is defined as the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs. It includes forcing a child to witness domestic violence, scapegoating them, humiliation and degrading punishments. Currently, civil law recognises emotional abuse of children. Social workers, as the BBC account says, are able to use guidelines based on this law. So they are not entirely lacking in the wherewithal to deal with “emotional cruelty”: they make reports to the courts after all, which decide whether children need to be taken away from their parents.

With the above laws in place, then, we are left to ask what value is added by another? For many parents, having their child taken away from them would be more than punishment enough. Parents who impair their child’s development as a result of incompetence due to drug or alcohol dependency, or couples who are constantly having violent rows with each other, do not necessarily lack affection for their children. In those cases losing a child who is “taken into care” may be heartbreaking. If that prospect fails to make them mend their ways it is not going to happen through the remote possibility of facing a prison sentence – remote because gathering sufficient evidence to meet the criminal standard of proof would be very difficult.

But what of those parents who really do lack affection, or even hate a child? There are many of these too. Step-parents, especially, who now make up such a substantial proportion of the whole, have much to answer for. The “wicked” step-parent is no myth. Frequently they resent their newly acquired brood; their hatred may even be murderous. Stepchildren are 60 times more likely to be killed than genetically related offspring. Not that this lets biological parents off the hook: taking parents as a whole, the latest figures show they kill on average over one child per fortnight in the UK, often in the context of a relationship breaking up, when one of the adult partners (usually a father) murders his children to spite his former partner.

Only a small proportion of hatred ever expresses itself in murder, of course. Elsewhere it comes out either in terms of physical violence and neglect or poisonous verbal aggression and disparagement, which certainly amounts to emotional cruelty. The proposed Cinderella Law carries a maximum penalty of ten years in prison: very severe, although not necessarily excessive in relation to the damage caused by the behaviour leading to it. But it is doubtful whether even the most draconian maximum theoretical sentence is likely to have even the slightest effect in deterring bad parental behaviour if cases rarely come to court, as seems likely.

So again, what if anything could the Cinderella Law be expected to achieve? It is often said, and rightly, that the criminal law is a blunt instrument and should be extended only when strictly necessary to combat a tightly defined evil; also it must be capable of enforcement, otherwise the law will be a dead letter littering the statute book; respect for the criminal law more generally will be undermined. Sometimes, though, a new criminal law can usefully “send a message” that may help put everyone on their best behaviour, even though prosecutions are rare. Such, for instance, was Sweden’s outlawing in 1979 of the physical punishment of children, including by parents in the family home. This measure has widely been hailed a great success in raising parental standards and discouraging the old belief that violence in the home is ever justifiable. It has inspired over thirty other countries, mainly European, to follow suit.

The message sent by the Swedish law was simple, as such messages need to be in order to gain traction. It was just “hitting kids is wrong”. The Cinderella Law goes further, but the message is still clear: “harming kids is wrong”. Yes, there is plenty to argue about regarding what causes harm, as we know all too well from the debate, such as it is, over “child sexual abuse”. But, as we have seen, the evidence clearly shows that emotional cruelty is desperately harmful. As a society, it is right we should do all in our power to tackle it. Non-criminal measures are arguably the best course: a big nudge in the direction of establishing that hitting kids is wrong was taken in Britain and most of the states in the United States (mainly the northern ones) when they banned corporal punishment in schools. And of course education is vital.

However, there is one great strength that the criminal law has which is not available to other measures, and I do not mean the power of the big stick. I mean symbolic power. The law of the land, especially the criminal law, is a solemn declaration of a country’s priorities. It says Listen up: This Shit Really Matters! It would be great, wouldn’t it, if a measure such as the Cinderella Law were to play a part in the shifting of those priorities towards forms of child abuse that really are abusive and harmful. This might at last mean a reassessment of whether repressive resources should be focused almost entirely, as they are now, on aiming at the wrong target i.e. non-coercive adult-child sexual contacts.

 

Daly, Martin; Wilson, Margo I., “Some differential attributes of lethal assaults on small children by stepfathers versus genetic fathers”, Ethology & Sociobiology, Vol 15(4), Jul 1994, 207-217.

Office for National Statistics (2013) Focus on: violent crime and sexual offences, 2011/12