Cinderella Act is seriously flawed
is an article I wrote in the Sunday Express which is published today.
By this it does not mean banning girls from marrying princes but is talking about criminalising “emotional abuse”.
We are told it is a contender for the forthcoming Queen’s Speech.
There is no question that there can be situations where children are traumatised by the way they have been treated but the Government does need to think through the details before enacting this law because this is one of the most complex subjects we face.
Where and how do we draw the line and on to whom should we place responsibility?
Let me assure you of this: you would not want your family sucked into the murky and sometimes nightmare social care system based on vague definitions.
I have spent many years campaigning in this area with Justice for Families.
I have seen appalling miscarriages of justice where troubled families are ripped apart by social workers and court-appointed experts claiming that children have been emotionally abused.
The consequences of such interventions are horrific for all involved. There are good outcomes but there are nuances.
Some of the most traumatised children are those who have reactive attachment disorder, which means they have trouble forming a bond with their primary carer.
Very often these children have been taken into care when very young and end up adopted before the age of five.
When they get into their teens there can then be all sorts of problems and they often end up back in care.
These children have clearly been emotionally abused but who is responsible?
Is it the mother?
Is it the local authority for moving them around from foster carer to foster carer or is it the adoptive family?
ONE THING you can be certain about local authorities’ children’s services is that they avoid accepting responsibility.
I have encountered numerous adoptive families who have been caring for traumatised children with no support from their local authority.
Very often the local authority puts all its effort into blaming the adoptive family and it has vast sums of taxpayers’ money and tame experts who will back it.
If the Government starts looking for someone to prosecute when this happens you can bet your bottom dollar that it will not be the local authority.
The proposed law would have implications for those families willing to adopt.
Would you be willing to adopt if you might be liable to criminal investigation for the emotional abuse of a troubled child?
The argument of “emotional abuse” and “risk of future emotional abuse” is often used in the care system when there has been a history of domestic violence.
It is undoubtedly the case that children can suffer emotionally when they witness conflict between their parents.
However domestic violence is already illegal and anyone perpetrating domestic abuse can be prosecuted.
Campaign group Action for Children’s proposal for a change to the law defines emotional abuse as “including exposing the child to violence against others in the same household”.
This would mean a domestic violence victim can be held liable for emotional abuse of the child. What kind of justice is that?
Rape victims and victims of domestic abuse are already finding this used as a reason for taking children into care.
There have been protests recently outside the Royal Courts of Justice about the unfairness of removing a rape victim’s children and putting them up for adoption.
Campaign groups such as Women Against Rape have been highlighting the unfairness of punishing victims but it is only a short step towards blaming the victim for a child’s emotional abuse.
This is already done in a secret court in care proceedings and does not take much to move it forward to the criminal court.
This is an area in which the views of experts will be key.
Many experts know that they have to keep local authorities on their side.
Hence we should not be surprised if those experts decide that they wish to point the finger at parents.
Another group of parents who are concerned about this proposal are those who have autistic children.
Given the costs of special needs education it is easier for councils to blame the parents, claiming the way they have treated their child has caused it to be autistic.
USING the criminal law in situations like this is something that needs to be done subtly and in a way in which it is very clear as to who is to blame for a clearly identifiable harm.
There are many family disputes that occur at the moment.
However using the criminal law to deal with such disputes is likely to make the disputes worse.
We already have a very aggressive child protection system but at the same time the system is not good at protecting children from abuse and neglect.
Often people explain to me how the arrogance of children’s services means that the local authority workers are unwilling to co-operate or understand.
This is particularly difficult for adoptive families who are often on the end of expensive campaigns by the local authority to blame them for all the ills of its adoptive children.
I accept that the law is out of date and that replacing the word “wilful” with “reckless” has merit.
However given the many cases that go wrong in the family courts and the way that local authorities always blame the parents this law needs a detailed rethink.