Parents who harm their children by consistently belittling them or depriving them of love and attention will face prosecution under new plans to criminalise emotional neglect.
SNP ministers have unveiled plans to update 80-year-old child abuse laws to ensure that they cover more than just physical harm. This will mean that prolonged patterns of parental name-calling, ignoring crying babies, shouting or singling children out for harsher treatment than siblings may become criminal acts.
A consultation will be launched over precise definitions, with ministers keen to ensure that only sustained neglect that causes long-term harm, and not discipline of children, is covered by the new laws.
Other plans include the creation of a national child protection register, aimed at ensuring that abusive parents do not escape scrutiny when they move between local authorities.
Mark McDonald, the SNP childcare and early years minister, announced the new measures following a review of the child protection system led by Catherine Dyer, a former Crown agent. This was commissioned after the conviction last year of the killers of Liam Fee, the two-year-old boy murdered by his mother and her partner in Fife in 2014.
The move to criminalise emotional neglect was welcomed by children’s charities. Matt Forde, national head of service for NSPCC Scotland, said that struggling parents should continue to be supported but it was right that emotional abuse was recognised under the law and punished in extreme cases.
He said: “Neglect can mean obvious things like not being fed or clothed properly, being dirty or cold, but also emotional neglect where a child receives really inconsistent care, parents are not available, a baby does not get soothed when they’re distressed or children are belittled and made to feel worthless.
“These types of things can be hugely damaging for a child and these dimensions of neglect are not really recognised in the law as it stands.”
Mr Forde added: “We know having the right kind of nurture and care when you’re very young is fundamental to brain development. If you’ve got a baby that’s not getting safe, predictable responses that make them thrive, it can affect them in all sorts of ways in later life — problems with behaviour, mental health, language, communication and social skills. Neglect might come from a parent’s own problems with mental health, alcohol or drugs, but it can be incredibly cruel as well. There are circumstances where what has happened to a child is so shocking and harmful it should be recognised as a crime.”
Emotional abuse and neglect are the most commonly noted concerns among children who are subsequently placed on the protection register, coming up substantially more often than physical or sexual abuse, which are covered by existing laws. Children who witness domestic abuse, even if they are not the targets, are also likely to be offered new protection.
At present, removing a legal exemption that protects parents who smack children is not being considered, but John Finnie, the Green MSP, is bringing forward a private member’s bill that would outlaw physical punishment.
The recommendation to set up a national child protection register follows concerns about information sharing that were highlighted in the case of Mikaeel Kular. The three-year-old was beaten to death by his mother in January 2014, and it emerged that the family were known to social workers in both Fife and Edinburgh. An inquiry found the death could not have been predicted but called for an overhaul of national guidelines for information sharing.
Mr McDonald said the government would also publish a new child protection policy and set up a national child protection leadership group.