National Post

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Saturday, November 27, 1999

Ottawa looks at criminalizing emotional abuse of children
Elena Cherney
National Post

Ottawa is considering making the emotional abuse of children a criminal offence, according to a wide-ranging consultation paper that is to be released next week by the Department of Justice.

The paper, designed to elicit response from child-welfare experts, also raises the possibility of criminally prosecuting Canadians who fail to report their suspicions of child abuse or neglect, and suggests adding new Criminal Code provisions on "extreme forms of child neglect" and child homicide.

Currently the law focuses on physical and sexual abuse and fails to take psychological abuse into consideration, the report notes.

"Inquest juries and inquiry reports have suggested that the focus of the current criminal law on physical harm is insufficient and that the law should more effectively recognize emotional harm or severe psychological damage," it states.

"Research studies have suggested that the most severe and long-lasting damage to children caused by sexual abuse may involve psychological rather than observable physical injury."

While acknowledging that criminal emotional abuse would be difficult to prove, the law could "set out the type of evidence that indicates emotional harm," or establish that certain types of behaviour by parents necessarily result in emotional harm.

"Emotional abuse" has been defined in Ontario's Child and Family Services Act to be treatment or neglect by parents or guardians that results in "serious anxiety, depression, withdrawal, self-destructive or aggressive behaviour or delayed development."

That definition means an adult cannot be considered an emotional abuser for simply being nasty to a child or yelling at one on the street, explained Martha Mackinnon, a lawyer with the Justice for Children and Youth legal clinic in Toronto.

New laws may also be needed to ensure that courts recognize that neglectful parents can do as much damage as physical and sexual abusers, the paper states. "[S]ome courts are less likely to treat cases of extreme neglect as seriously as cases that involve direct physical violence."

While provincial child-protection codes deal with neglect and the obligation to report suspicions about child maltreatment, adding Criminal Code measures would strengthen those laws and "send a clear message" that it is crucial to report child maltreatment.

Child advocacy groups recognize the proposal raises difficult questions. If it is illegal to keep one's suspicions of abuse secret, children would feel unable to confide in anybody, Ms. Mackinnon said. "If absolutely everybody in the world has to report, kids don't have a safe place to confess to."

Making child homicide a crime separate from the killing of an adult creates an ethical quandary, she said. "It sends out a very odd signal that not all human life has the same value," she said.

A new child-homicide section of the code would allow authorities to lay murder charges against abusive parents even if they cannot show a specific intent to kill, which prosecutors must prove in adult murder cases. Many child killers are prosecuted for manslaughter rather than murder because it is difficult to prove intent.

The paper being released next week is to be sent to child-welfare advocates and experts, along with a request for their input.


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