The Cinderella Law to punish parents to make them more loving

The Cinderella Law to punish parents to make them more loving

By Andrew White.

If parents are seriously emotionally abusive or neglectful to their children, the children can be removed from the family by social workers. Reports suggest the government is considering a “Cinderella law” to make such abusive neglect into a criminal offence. What a truly foolish idea.

Cinderella law on the BBC

Cinderella law on The Guardian

There can be a  role for criminal law in family affairs. For example, many campaigners would welcome a law to make failure to notify female genital mutilation to the authorities into a criminal offence. And it could be valuable for social workers to have compulsory powers ask police to investigate a family. But to punish parents for being cold to their children? Are there really policymakers who imagine that the threat of prison will make a mother fall in love with her baby?

The reasoning is seductive; cruel and cold parents who  don’t hit a child go free, while those who are physically violent get prosecuted. Yet, the argument goes, in terms of long-term damage to the children, there is may be no difference in the two scenarios.

But in a calmer and wider perspective, those cruel parents for sure themselves grew up in abusive or traumatic families. Traumatised families transmit pain and hurt from generation to generation.  Let’s say that grandmother became pregnant outside of marriage and was forced to have a backstreet abortion by her parents. That’s sadly a common scenario. She marries and has another baby, say a daughter. But she is still racked by guilt and grief from the abortion. So she is sad, depressed and distant as she nurses her daughter. The daughter has a shaky start to life and has a high risk of growing up feeling emotionally malnourished, unloved, unlovable, and finding it hard to be a good mother herself. Then she in turn has a daughter. This grandchild now has a high risk of a being welcomed into life with extremely painful emotional starvation from a mother who is very unavailable. She, and later generations, may be at high risk of serious emotional or physical abuse.

Now the police enter the situation and see the granddaughter as a bad, bad emotionally abusive parent. Bad people should be punished, right? So off to gaol with her. But punishment will not help in this scenario. Indeed right and wrong, guilt and blame, won’t help. Those are categories for individuals and this is a family system problem, not an individual one. The whole family needs help. I’m no public policy expert, but my gut feeling is that over and 25 – 35 year period, the best possible investment that this country could make would be in early years family support for vulnerable families.

More to come on this.

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