Better protection for children is now law.

For the first time in over 80 years the criminal law protecting children in England and Wales recognises sustained emotional abuse, which causes psychological harm, as a crime.


After four years of campaigning, with the support of people all over the country and politicians from all parties, the child cruelty offence was updated in England and Wales.

This means that sustained emotional abuse, which causes psychological harm, is now clearly illegal. This includes isolation, humiliation or bullying that is likely to cause a child unnecessary suffering or injury to health.

Police officers and professionals have told us the change will help them to respond to the seriousness of emotional abuse and work better together, with a common understanding of what causes harm to children.

By acting early, we can avoid the pain and trauma of emotional abuse that can affect a whole life, not only a childhood.

What the law used to say about neglect

The crime of neglect came from the Poor Law Amendment Act 1868, which made it illegal to fail to provide a child with food, clothes, medical help or somewhere to live. It was redefined in the Prevention of Cruelty to, and Protection of, Children Act 1889 to only cover intentional physical neglect. The wording from this is largely used in the law we have now, The Children and Young Persons Act 1933.

Since then our understanding of the harm caused by neglect has grown. We now know that children who are emotionally deprived are more likely to develop mental health problems, have poor social and relationship skills, and end up in the criminal justice system. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – which the UK has signed – also states how important it is to care for children emotionally as well as physically.

The Children and Young Persons Act says that cruelty to a child must be 'wilful' to be a criminal offence. This is confusing because neglect usually comes from not doing something, but most people understand ‘wilful’ to mean an action that is deliberate – so how can not doing something be seen as a deliberate action? Police officers have told us that this can make it really difficult to get a conviction or even build a case against someone.

According to the law there are five different types of abuse: assault, ill-treatment, neglect, abandonment and exposure. But there’s no clear definition of 'ill-treatment' and how, if at all, it’s different to 'maltreatment' (which is the term widely used by those working in child protection). Exposure and abandonment are also out-dated terms - a prosecution hasn't taken place under either of these categories since 1910 and 1957 respectively.