Emotional harm is the type of harm to children which divides people most. It is not hard to understand why children shouldn’t be hit or beaten, why they should not be subjected to sexual harm, why parents heroin or alcohol misuse causes problems for children, or that children need clean, safe homes and to have food and proper care.

Emotional harm however, feels more vague, and more subjective. When parents who have had their children removed complain that this was done wrongly, it is often emotional harm that they cite as the cause for the removal.

(To an extent, that may be partly self-selection – parents with heroin problems don’t come onto discussion forums to talk about how they were badly treated, and parents who have been found to have broken their child’s bones don’t tend to want to talk about it – unless there was an organic medical condition that could account for it)

But has emotional harm become more prevalent as a reason for taking children into care? Is this something which is happening more and more, particularly with young children? Is emotional harm leading to adoption? [And the overarching suspicion about care proceedings, that emotional harm could basically capture any parent that a social worker took a dislike to and result in children being wrongly removed – is that right?]

Emotional harm means different things to different people, and can cover a spectrum ranging from shouting at your children, calling them names, not making them feel secure right up to planting false allegations about sexual abuse or persuading a fourteen year old to get pregnant on your behalf. Some people might class a child being exposed to a stormy or violent relationship between the parents as risk of physical harm, but others might say ‘if there’s no history of the child being injured or risk of that, then this is emotional harm’

And all sorts of abuse carry with it some element of emotional harm – a child being hit by a parent is physically hurt, but also emotionally upset and distressed.

What we are focussing on though, is those cases where there is no neglect, physical abuse, sexual risk, or drugs and alcohol, and just purely ‘emotional harm’

Sadly, the statistics that are gathered and published at the moment aren’t much help with this.

We can find the number of care proceedings issued and see how this has risen over time – http://www.cafcass.gov.uk/leaflets-resources/organisational-material/care-and-private-law-demand-statistics/care-demand-statistics.aspx

[from around 6,500 in 2007 to 10,500 in 2013]

And we can see statistics as to the numbers of each type of final orders made https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/court-statistics-quarterly-january-to-march-2014     [you want the Family folder within that]

And the Government publish adoption statistics :


But none of those statistics collect the type of harm that it was alleged (or proven) that the children were suffering from. That’s exactly the sort of gap which is pivotal – if society is going to tackle the harm that children are suffering from, or provide services where they are most needed, we need to know whether the harm that is leading to care proceedings is neglect, or physical abuse, or sexual abuse.

This information is not gathered yet, and perhaps there should be a push for it to be gathered.

What we DO have, is the NSPCC stats on the categories that children are placed on child protection plans for :


(a child protection plan isn’t the same thing as a case going to Court, there may be some overlap, but you would expect to see many more children on child protection plans than are in Court proceedings)

Category of abuse 2009   2010 2011 2012 2013
Neglect 15,800 17,300 18,600 18,220 17,930
Physical abuse 4,400  5,000 4,800 4,690 4,670
Sexual abuse 2,000 2,300 2,400 2,220 2,030
Emotional abuse 9,100 10,800 11,400 12,330 13,640
Multiple 2,900 3,700 5,500 5,390 4,870
Total 34,100 39,100 42,700 42,850 43,140


One can see that the numbers of children subject to protection plans are about 3 or 4 times (currently 4 times, the amount that are within care proceedings), but also that the numbers are going up, and have increased by nearly a third over the last five years.

You can also see that the level of sexual abuse is fairly steady over those last five years, and that the same is true of physical abuse. It is undoubtedly the case that the number of children on child protection plans for emotional abuse has increased considerably over the last five years, and that it has become the second highest category (still some way behind neglect)

The figure that six times as many children are on child protection plans for emotional abuse as for sexual abuse, and three times as many as for physical abuse is rather surprising.

Does that translate into Court proceedings, or do these emotional harm cases end up being the cases that DON’T go to Court ? (we know that currently 75% of the child protection plan cases DON’T go to Court.

At the moment, we honestly just don’t know. It may be that as the Transparency rules get better bedded in, and all judgments in care proceedings are available in anonymised form to read online, that it will be possible to manually go through each of those and do a statistical analysis for all the valuable information that isn’t currently collected.

Something we CAN try, is to take the law reports that are currently published, and look at the prevalence of harm in each of those areas in all of the reported care proceeding cases since the Children Act came into being. Now, the law reports only represent quite a small proportion of care proceedings, so the statistics are by no means complete, but it might give an example of trends. The pool is small, and not complete, so it is illustrative only, not hard facts.

[I used Lawtel for this exercise – it is easier to do searches quickly than Bailii, but Bailii has the advantage of being free]

That pulled up 33 care proceeding cases where neglect was specifically referenced, 22 where emotional abuse was specifically referenced, 95 sexual abuse and 98 physical injury.

For adoption cases, 8 for neglect, 8 for emotional abuse, 7 for sexual abuse, 9 for physical injury.

[It may well be that ‘physical abuse’ gets recorded within the judgments as a wide range of terms – ‘fracture’, ‘bruise’ ‘break’ ‘broken’ ‘beaten’ etc so a simple term does not capture all of the physical abuse cases, but this not terribly scientific approach suggests two things (a) that physical abuse and sexual abuse child protection plans get converted into care proceedings quite often and (b) that references to ‘emotional abuse’ are more prevalent that one might suspect]

Anecdotally, within twenty years in child protection work, I have seen two cases that I would class as ‘pure’ emotional abuse with no other risks, and hundreds of the other cases. That would lead me to believe that ‘pure’ emotional abuse leading to care proceedings is very rare, but the plural of anecdote is not data.

It may be that there is a greater amount of ‘emotional harm’ cases in the Courts that I would have expected, and it is a good reason for wanting to have better statistics kept.