Child Abuse Laws
Child abuse can occur in a wide range of ways and can have devastating effects on the victim and those around them. If you are suffering or have suffered from any form of abuse whilst under the age of 18, there are several ways in which the law and authorities can help you. This extends from eliminating the risk of ongoing harm through to assisting you with recovery, counselling and securing compensation.
Child abuse includes physical, sexual and psychological harm and is a delicate and emotive subject. It is therefore reassuring to victims to know that solicitors who work in this field, do so with the utmost integrity and patience and that professionals including lawyers, police, social services and related authorities treat each case with respect, empathy and diligence.
The following article explains the law and its relevance to child abuse cases, including the authorities who can support victims, the ways in which investigations begin and are carried out and how victims are protected and assisted throughout a legal case.
What is child abuse?
The law does not have a single definition for ‘child abuse', but the legal system serves to protect children from multiple types of harm. With the support of various agencies including local authorities, charities and social services, UK law aims to prevent children from suffering from different forms of abuse, and this duty covers all individuals under the age of 18 who are currently suffering or could potentially suffer from harm.
Although there is not one set definition for child abuse, the term is used to refer to poor treatment, cruel behaviour and acts that are likely to damage a child's physical or emotional health and development. Some of the most common types of child abuse include:
Neglect is the term used to describe the treatment of a child which fails to meet their physical, emotional and development needs. Neglect can occur during the pregnancy, if the mother uses drugs for example, through to any stage of the child's growth. Some forms of neglect include:
- Parents not providing sufficient food, clothing and housing to the child.
- Failure to supervise and care for the child properly, often leading to risks to the safety and wellbeing of the minor.
- Failure to protect the child from physical and emotional harm
- Failure to arrange adequate medical care for a child who needs it
- Failure to meet the child's emotional needs.
In some instances, the neglect will be intentional, whereas in other situations, the parents may not even recognise that their behaviour is neglectful.
Child abuse may take the form of physical injuries including intentional harm such as slapping, shaking, pushing or beating a child.
Emotional abuse can occur in a wide variety of ways and can cause long lasting and serious damage to a child's psychological development, self-confidence and wellbeing. Some examples of emotional abuse include:
- Excessive and constant punishment
- Insulting a child, telling them that they are worthless, inadequate or disappointing
- Not providing affection to the child
- Not giving the child an opportunity to express their beliefs or opinions
- Allowing the child to witness or overhear ill-treatment of another person such as in cases of domestic abuse
- Inhibiting a child from partaking in normal social activities and interactions
- Bullying a child either directly or through cyber bullying
- Giving reason for a child to feel frightened or insecure.
Sexual abuse refers to situations where a child is made to be involved in sexual activity. In some instances, the child may not even recognise that they are being exploited sexually or understand what they are being made to do. Sexual abuse can include:
- Physical contact such as inappropriate touching, sexual assault or rape
- Child prostitution
- Taking pornographic photographs or videos of a child
- Grooming a child with the intention of future abuse
The Laws Relating to Child Abuse
There are several laws and pieces of legislation that relate to child abuse cases. The laws serve to cover the different types of abuse that a child may suffer and ensure that relevant services and authorities are in place and responsible for acting to protect those at risk. Some of the most relevant pieces of legislation relating to child abuse include:
Children Act 1984 and 2004
This law establishes the relationships between various agencies and sets out the responsibility and accountability of different authorities for the protection and safeguarding of children. Some of the inclusions of this act are:
- The creation of the Children's Commissioner for England post
- Sets out the acceptable levels of physical punishment that a parent may adopt. This means that the law states that it is not acceptable for a parent to wound or cause actual or grievous bodily harm to a child through punishment.
- Sets out the responsibilities and duties of local authorities and related partners such as the police, social services, health system and youth justice agencies.
Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006
The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act was established to set out a single body who would be responsible for making decisions relating to vulnerable individuals, including children. The Act also demands that records are kept by local authorities detailing those who are recognised as vulnerable.
Children and Families Act 2014
The Children and Families Act is legislation that sets out several reforms to previous laws and legal practices. Some of the most important inclusions in this act are:
- Courts are bound by a 26 week time limit to decide whether a child should be taken into care
- Children may have a ‘staying put' arrangement which allows them to remain with a foster family until they are 21 years old.
Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003
This act, which was further developed in sections 73 and 74 of the Serious Crime Act 2015, sets out to protect female children from genital mutilation which is a common practice in some cultures. Female Genital Mutilation Protection Orders can be arranged which put a legal responsibility on health care workers, social workers and teachers to report concerns or admissions from any girl under the age of 18 who has or is likely to be subjected to genital mutilation.
Can anyone be charged with child abuse?
A child abuse charge can be brought against any person over the age of ten. That said, it is very rare for a child to be prosecuted for a criminal offence relating to child abuse. The Crown Prosecution Service, local authority and related services will very carefully evaluate each case to determine whether a charge should be brought against a minor.
Penalties for Child Abuse
The penalties for child abuse vary depending on the severity of the abuse that was inflicted and the level of involvement that the offender had in the case. Penalties can range from protective orders which prohibit or decrease the amount of time that an offender can spend with the child through to life imprisonment for more serious offences.
How to Report Child Abuse
If a person suspects that any form of child abuse is being committed or suffered, they should promptly report the case to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the child. It is important to report cases even if there is uncertainty so that an investigation can be carried out to ensure that the child is not at risk.
There are a number of ways in which child abuse can be reported and the quicker a case is investigated, the more swiftly action can be taken if needed. If there is an immediate risk of harm to a child, the police should be urgently contacted by calling 999.
If there is a past case of child abuse that needs to be reported, the police can be contacted on 101 or the local authority should be able to offer support and take information through the children's social care department.
What happens after a child abuse report is made?
Depending upon the information provided and the urgency or required action, there are a number of ways in which a report of child abuse will be responded to. This includes:
- Immediate deployment of police and support services
- Further requests for information
- An investigation by social services
Once the report is made, the person who contacted the authorities to raise concerns will not be kept up to date or informed about the progression of the case.
Child Abuse Support Agencies
There are a number of official agencies and authorities as well as charities that are in place to support victims of child abuse as well as those who want to report potential cases. The following are some of the most important to be aware of:
- The police. The police should be contacted with any reports of child abuse or by victims who are at risk. Immediate risks should be reported by calling 999, whereas non-emergency reports should be made to a specialist child protection investigator by calling 101.
- The local authority. The child protection team at the local authority will be available 24 hours a day, and they can assist in investigating, safeguarding and removing children who are at risk of being abused.
- The Samaritans. The Samaritans can provide support and advice to anyone who needs to talk about their worries. This means that victims can seek support in a confidential and safe way. The Samaritans can be contacted on 08457 909090.
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