Jessica Lee is the Member of Parliament for Erewash & Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to the Attorney General Dominic Grieve.
On Wednesday, the Queen told Parliament:
“A serious crime Bill will be brought forward to tackle child neglect, disrupt serious organised crime and strengthen powers to seize the proceeds of crime.”
This announcement is a big one, and it is certainly the right one. I have been working with the charity Action for Children for the last three years on their campaign to update the 1933 Children and Young Persons Act. This has involved speaking to the experts and professionals on the ground about a problematic loop-hole that exists in the criminal law.
It’s important that we understand from the outset what this reform seeks to achieve, but also what it does not intend to change. This is about applying the principles of what we know about child protection to the law. It’s about taking a step back from the embroidery of the system and recognising that there is a gap, and where there is a gap we cannot say that we are doing everything we can to protect children. Above all, it’s about the justice that children deserve.
Emotional abuse is a subject which opens it self up to questioning. What is emotional abuse? Where do we draw the line? It isn’t as familiar concept when we think about a crime. For most of us emotion is something we use to express love, joy and happiness, or we think of reacting to people’s actions with sadness and hurt, but not often do we consider it as a weapon for deliberate abuse.
In the 81 years since the Children and Young Persons Act was drafted our understanding of the harm caused by emotional abuse has developed significantly, but the current criminal law doesn’t reflect this. In my experience as a family law barrister, in the family courts (using the civil burden of proof) the emotional harm caused to children in child protection cases is often at the forefront of the concerns. In short, the emotional harm suffered by a child has just as much significance as the physical harm which may feature in a case. By bringing forward this announcement in the Queen’s Speech, the criminal law will “catch up” with other areas of law.
I was recently told Sarah’s story. It’s shocking to think that anyone can be treated like this, but it helps us to understand the damage caused to a child suffering in this way.
At 5 years old, Sarah’s mother locked her and her younger siblings out of the house for most of every day. When they weren’t locked out, they were imprisoned in their bedroom. Authorities were alerted by neighbours who heard the children crying. Reports said that they were defecating in their bedrooms and smearing it on the windows. Sarah was still at home at the age of eight when teachers reported she was soiling herself and was frequently and inexplicably tearful. At home Sarah was treated like a servant tasked with cleaning up their squalid house. Without adequate care from their parents, she took responsibility for looking after her younger siblings. She began to show signs of serious depressive illness and had assumed responsibility for her family amid its breakdown. At this time, Sarah was just 11 years old.
The current offence of child neglect only applies to physical harm done to a child. Although the obsolete term ‘mental derangement’ may have been directed at non-physical harm, in 1981 the House of Lords restricted it to a child’s ‘physical needs rather than its spiritual, educational, moral or emotional needs’ (R v Sheppard, 1981).
Extending the criminal law to cover not only physical harm but also the emotional harm of children will not lower the seriousness of the crime or its impact on a child. The changes should reflect the severity of emotional abuse, meaning prosecution for general unhappiness or upset would simply not be possible.
This announcement is just one crucial step towards addressing the wider issue of child neglect. In the vast majority of cases, the solution is to work with the family, supporting parents to create a safe, happy environment for their children. Sadly, not all problems can be addressed in this way and in the most severe cases we must have the powers in place to allow the police to work together with other child protection agencies and pursue criminal proceedings.
We have come a long way since 1933, and we need to get this right. It’s a brave step forward and one which this Government has not shied away from. I’ll continue to support my colleagues as we implement these changes and provide the best framework of law to protect vulnerable children.