Emotional abuse of children is, as of May 2015, now illegal in Britain. This means that the “Cinderella Law” long campaigned for by Action for Children and others, is at last in place.
Technically, the new Serious Crime Act has a Child Cruelty clause (number 66). It clarifies the old Children and Young Persons of 1933, explaining that wilful, intentional or reckless ill-treatment leading to harm of a child by a responsible adult is a crime, “whether the suffering or injury is of a physical or psychological nature”.
According to a fact sheet issued by the Home Office, the rewritten clauses should now “make it absolutely clear that the behaviour necessary to establish the ill-treatment… can be non-physical (for example a sustained course of non-physical conduct, including, for instance, isolation, humiliation or bullying, if it is likely to cause unnecessary suffering or injury to health)”.
The inclusion of the word reckless is possibly significant, where “‘recklessly’ shall mean that a person with responsibility for a child foresaw a risk that an act or omission regarding that child would be likely to result in significant harm, but nonetheless unreasonably decided to run that risk”. If lack of physical affection is highly likely to damage a child’s development, then placing them in an institution where they will certainly be deprived of it must be seen as recklessly depriving them of something they need, I would suggest that the very act of placing them in that institution is an act of neglect. Even if it cannot be proved that the child will experience other forms of harm from her boarding experience, there must be a certain reckless risk involved that she will do.
Further calls for changes involve not assessing emotional harm to children as that which causes ‘emotional derrangement’ , as this is not a helpful way of assessing less dramatic but serious effects of emotional neglect such such as lack of self-esteem.
One of the more archaic elements of the old law, however also relevant as it refers to ‘unnecessary’ suffering: there are perhaps times when most children will suffer, the decision to place them in institutions where they will categorically not have certain needs met, and may well be subject to other forms of distress, must surely be seen as ‘unnecessary’.
Another potential piece of legislation which has hitherto not been examined in the boarding context is the notion of Gillick competency. It is frequently argued that children nowadays are not sent to boarding school, they consent to go themselves. However, to legally consent legally to medical treatment or contraception advice it must be shown that they can understand what is involved : we would argue that no eight-year-old can possibly understand what is involved in leaving home