Should Child Neglect and Abuse be a Criminal Offence?

Should it be an Criminal Offence for parents or carers who emotionally abuse and neglect their children?

We’ve seen some terrible examples of child neglect and abuse in the Media recently.

According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, there were 54,438 substantiations of abuse in Australia in 2013-2014. Of that, 26,215 were in NSW.

However, these numbers are considered to be a “conservative estimate” (Bromfield & Higgins, 2004) due to the under reporting caused by things such as: the private nature of child abuse and neglect, the difficulty in children disclosing the abuse, as well as lack of evidence. Actual cases of child abuse and neglect may be significantly higher.

Broken down, the number of emotional abuse (39%) and neglect (28%) make over 67 % of all the substantiations recorded in that period.

What is emotional abuse and neglect and how does it differ from physical abuse?

According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies  “Child maltreatment refers to any non-accidental behaviour by parents, caregivers, other adults or older adolescents that is outside the norms of conduct and entails a substantial risk of causing physical or emotional harm to a child or young person.” Child abuse is broken down to five main subtypes:

  • Physical abuse,
  • Sexual abuse,
  • Exposure to family violence,
  • Emotional maltreatment, and

Emotional or psychological abuse

Emotional abuse is defined by the Australian Institute of family Studies as the “inappropriate verbal or symbolic acts,” either by commission or omission, by a parent or caregiver towards a child. Items under this category include things like inadequate physical nurturing or emotional availability.

According to a popular conception by Garbarino et al. (1986), emotional maltreatment takes five main behavioural forms. They include: rejection, isolation, ignoring, terrorising (i.e. bullying, verbal assault, intimidation, etc.), and corruption (or anti-social/mis-socialisation).


Neglect is defined as the failure by a parent or caregiver to provide a child (where they are in a position to do so) with the conditions that are “essential for their physical and emotional development and wellbeing” (Broadbent & Bentley, 1997; Bromfield, 2005; Scott, 2014; WHO, 2006).

These behaviors include:

  • Abandonment;
  • Failure to provide basic physical necessities like food, basic clothing, housing, and health care;
  • Failure to provide or the deliberate withholding of appropriate medical care;
  • Failure to provide emotional warmth, nurturance, encouragement and support;
  • Failure to provide an education and the tools required to participate in the education system, and
  • Supervisory neglect, which is characterised by absence or inattention.

Should parents and caregivers who neglect and emotionally abuse their children face possible jail time?

Serious examples of child neglect and abuse are often not prosecuted in NSW, rather left to The Department of Family and Community Services and Care Proceedings commenced in the Children’s Court of NSW for the protection of the child.

Parents and other caregivers have a duty to protect children in their care from harm and to provide them with the ‘necessities of life’. If a parent or caregiver fails to provide the basic needs of a child or a child is harmed either physically or psychologically from abuse or neglect, the parent or caregiver could be charged under criminal or child protection laws.

However, how abuse is categorised and punished depends on a variety of factors including the jurisdiction in which the offence took place and under what specific law the offence comes under. For example, in a 2009 report by the The National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children entitled Time For Action—inconsistency, overlap and potential conflict were identified when it came to “laws between state and territory family and domestic violence and child protection laws and the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth).”

An example the report showed was how an “order under the Family Law Act may allow a parent to spend time with a child, whereas a State/Territory protection order might state that the parent may not approach or communicate with the child.”

If the child sustains a permanent or fatal injury the offender will be charged under criminal law as an offence of violence. When it comes to sexual abuse of a child, each state and territory in Australia has its own sexual offences against children in situations of child sexual abuse.

With regards to emotional abuse and neglect of children, NSW does not have the same penalties as other jurisdictions. The Child Abuse Squad wants to change all that and is advocating for a new law that will treat the emotional abuse and neglect of children as seriously as physical violence, with as an article in the Daily Telegraph points out, “jail sentences for parents and carers who are found guilty.”

In Western Australia inadequate care or treatment that results in significant physical, sexual, emotional or psychological abuse or neglect of a child could result in imprisonment for up to 10 years. Sydney University Psychology Clinic Director Judy Hyde says parents/caregivers need “consequences for [their] behaviour” and the Attorney- General wants there to “appropriate deterrent and punishment put in place for offenders of child abuse and neglect.” He adds, “the ACT Crimes Act has a neglect Act, so we’re scoping whether we need to look at that sort of legislation.”

We as a community have to do all we can to ensure that our youngest members are protected. However, there are many factors at play when it comes to child abuse and just locking up parents and other caregivers might night be the right answer.