Over the decades working as a social worker, I have worked mainly with adults, often who were suffering the consequences of a childhood in which they have been damaged almost beyond repair.
Of course there is rarely, if ever, a smoking gun. We can surmise that some of the experiences are causal, not just associations, but proving this – separating it from so-called genetic disposition, or from weakness of personality, or the consequences of all the maladaptive coping strategies that we use to get by, and then become the slave of – this is another matter entirely.
It will not surprise you then to hear that I have been more than a little interested in the recent news that the government are to introduce a new criminal offence in relation to the emotional neglect of children. Robert Buckland, the Conservative MP for Swindon South was quoted in the Guardian as follows;
Buckland said: “Current law focuses only on the physical effects of abuse, stating for example that it is an offence to ill-treat a child resulting in the ‘loss of sight, or hearing, or limb, or organ of the body’. Emotional neglect, by contrast, which modern science now shows can be equally as destructive to a child’s wellbeing as physical abuse, is excluded from the law.” Action for Children said that out of 41 legal systems examined around the world, only two, including England, did not criminalise emotional abuse.
It is worth remembering the rather shocking research results about the link between emotional abuse and the later development of psychotic illnesses- Oliver James in the Guardian said this;
A definitive analysis of the 41 best studies into the impact of childhood adversity on the risk of psychosis (mostly schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) was published in 2012. It broke down the role of different kinds of maltreatment. Emotional abuse meant exposure to behaviour such as harshness and name-calling from parents. Emotional neglect meant lack of love and responsiveness. Overall, in order of impact, emotional abuse increased the risk of psychosis the most (by 3.4 times, physical abuse and emotional neglect did so by 2.9, sexual abuse and bullying by peers by 2.4).
That emotional abuse is more damaging than sexual and physical abuse may seem surprising, although they tend to go together. One study found that the emotionally abused were 12 times more likely to be schizophrenic than the general population (compared with six times for the physically abused and twice as likely for the sexually abused).
Another study followed adolescents for 15 years and found that over a third became schizophrenic if both parents were hostile, critical and intrusive, compared with none where only one parent was or neither were.
In his definitive book, Models of Madness, John Read, a clinical psychologist at Liverpool University, shows that in the 10 studies testing the matter, the more extreme the childhood adversity, the greater the risk of adult psychosis. The results are similar for the number of adversities.
In one large study, those subjected to five or more adversities were 193 times more likely to suffer psychosis than those with none. Similar findings come from studies of less extreme emotional distress. In the definitive one, which followed 180 children from infancy to the age of 18, 90% of those who suffered early maltreatment qualified for a mental illness. Emotional neglect under the age of two was a critical predictor.
It is in light of this evidence that the government’s plans must be understood: the crucial role of early nurture seems to be accepted in a cross-party consensus.
Why then do I still find myself with an uneasy sense of foreboding about all this?
I think it is because child protection in this country has been characterised by such simplistic banner waving. We are desperate to find someone to blame; the reason children are abused is because of all those horrible people (who are not like us) who need to be sorted out. If only the bloody woolly liberal social workers would get out of their bloody CND meetings and do their bloody jobs.
I also know just how incredibly difficult it can be to firstly identify the damaging patterns of parenting that might be categorised as emotional neglect, or even emotional abuse. Add this to the growing awareness within child protection services of the association between parental mental illness and emotional neglect. The fear is that the perfect storm of political pressure and the desperate need to protect children might end up demonising and criminalising parents who are themselves needing help and support.
This recent Ofsted report kind of makes the same point- back in 2013, they called for a mandatory reporting system for mental health services to collect data on children whose parents or carers have mental health difficulties and report on such data nationally. What might we use such data for? My hope is that it would be to assist families. To get alongside young people and find ways of making them feel special, loved, accepted. For injecting a sense of delight and wonder into their childhoods. But this is no easy task either.
These are complex issues, requiring careful thoughtful engagement. The law is part of this, but it is a blunt instrument- applied when it is actually too late. Suggesting that such a law will operate as any kind of deterrent on people who are often affected by their own complex difficulties is fanciful in the extreme.
When will politicians stand up and trumpet a the unsexy quiet work of the family link workers, paid just above minimum wage, who hold the hands of children who most of us would never give a second glance?