Children First, Committee Stage: Emotional Abuse

Children First Committee Stage with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, James Reilly TD, Wednesday 23 September 2015

In page 5, between lines 27 and 28, insert the following –
 ““Emotional abuse” means behaviour (including an omission to behave in a particular manner) that significantly and seriously deprives a child of his or her developmental need for affection, approval, consistency and security and, without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing, includes –
(i) the imposition of negative attributes on a child, expressed by persistent criticism, sarcasm, hostility or blaming;
(ii) conditional parenting in which the level of care shown to a child is made contingent on his or her behaviours or actions;
(iii) emotional unavailability of the child’s parent or carer;
(iv) unresponsiveness of the parent or carer or inconsistent or inappropriate expectations of the child;
(v) premature imposition of responsibility on the child;
(vi) unrealistic or inappropriate expectations of the child’s capacity to understand something or to behave and control himself or herself in a certain way;
(vii) under- or over-protection of the child;
(viii) failure to show interest in, or provide age-appropriate opportunities for, the child’s cognitive and emotional development;
(ix) use of unreasonable or over-harsh disciplinary measures;
(x) exposure to domestic violence; and
(xi) exposure to inappropriate or abusive material through new technology,
provided that such behaviour or omission to behave in a particular manner results in or is likely to result in significant and serious injury to the emotional, social or psychological welfare of the child.”

In page 6, delete lines 12 and 13 and replace with the following –
 “neglect” means, in relation to a child,
(i) to deprive the child of adequate food, warmth, clothing, hygiene, supervision, safety or medical care; or
(ii) to deprive the child of appropriate emotional and psychological support or to subject the child (or allow or cause the child to be subjected)
to emotional abuse to the extent that the child’s physical, social, intellectual, psychological or emotional development is significantly and seriously affected.”

Minister, I move Amendment 1

It is extremely important that we identify and name ‘emotional abuse’ as a stand-alone form of abuse which, where sustained and ongoing, has a devastating effect on children’s lives and through into adulthood.

Emotional abuse is often the first abuse to occur and then escalates into other forms of abuse. We talk at length about the importance of early intervention and should not underestimate the message we are sending by excluding emotional abuse. What message are we giving? Emotional abuse is about control and power.

Barring and Protection Order – cannot use abusive language – we are able to define this in law.  Why is an adult different to a child?

Case – parent telling child every day that they are “born angry” and then wonder why the child at 12 presents with an anger problem.

In the Bill, ‘harm’ includes ‘neglect’. This amendment (amendments 1 and 2 read together), alters the definition of neglect to include emotional abuse, though only where the emotional abuse significantly and seriously injures the emotional, social or psychological welfare of the child.

The definition of ‘emotional abuse’ is largely drawn from its definition in the Children First Guidance, subject to the caveat that behaviour or omission to behave will not be treated as emotional abuse for the purpose of this Act unless it has a significant and serious impact on the child.

This is a relatively high threshold, which is designed to ensure that minor infractions or subjective differences in relation to best practice in parenting do not become subject of investigation.

The amendment is clearly framed so that only behaviour or omissions to behave that have a significant and serious effect on the emotional, social or psychological welfare of the child are deemed to constitute emotional abuse.

The examples given at 1 through 11 of Amendment 1 are not exhaustive. They are without prejudice to the generality of the substantive definition and are drawn directly from Children First.

It is important to note that a single or isolated instance of any of these examples may not be enough in itself to constitute emotional abuse in the sense in which it is defined in the amendment.

These examples may nonetheless be useful in helping to identify emotional abuse though, again, they are subject to the caveat that the effects of the behaviour or omission to behave must be serious.


Children First Bill 2014, Second Stage

Seanad Eireann, Children First Bill 2014, Second Stage, 21 July 2015


Welcome Minister.

I warmly welcome the arrival of the Bill to the Seanad (15 months since first introduced to the Dáil in April 2014).

I actively took part in the Pre-Legislative Scrutiny by the Health and Children Committee who produced its report in July 2012.  I would like to express my thanks to all the organisations and individuals who provided their expert insight.

I would particularly like to thank the Children’s Rights Alliance, ISPCC, Barnardos and EPIC for giving me their updated views on the legislation which has significantly changed, indeed improved, as it has progressed.  I am hoping that the Seanad can make some additional changes to further ensure it will achieve its stated aim.

This legislation is urgently needed and long overdue to put child welfare and protection on a statutory footing-solidify good intentions.

It is essential that we get this right.

Overarching concerns

Before I consider the legislation before us I would briefly like to stress the importance of resourcing of the Child and Family Agency. The Agency continues to be overstretched due to insufficient budget allocation and the roll out of this Bill will most certainly result in additional workload. It is essential that resources, both financial and personnel, are made available to ensure the implementation of the national policies on the ground. (National Review of Cases Awaiting Allocation 15 July 2014).

There is a fear Minister that the ‘system will be overwhelmed’ when this Bill is brought into law. I think the more pressing fear is that there are overwhelming numbers of children at risk of harm and abuse throughout the country. We need this legislation to shine a bright spotlight and ensure that there is no hiding place for vile abusers. It is our job to ensure the system works come hell or high water.

I am also concerned about the preparedness of other State agencies imperative to the success of Children First. For example, the Department of Education or the HSE.

There is much to welcome in this Bill but given the time contraints I will outline area I believe need to be further addressed as the Bill progresses through the Seanad.

Corporal Punishment

Minister, I agree with the Council of Europe and echo its call for a “culture of zero tolerance of violence towards children”.

It is for this reason that I have advised successive Ministers for Children and Youth Affairs of my intention to table an amendment to this Bill to repeal the defence of reasonable chastisement.

I look forward to tabling the amendment I have put forward when we take Committee Stage of this Bill.

Gender Recognition for Transgender Children under the age of 16

Minister, I know you are aware of my disappointment that children are not included in the Gender Recognition Act.

Last Wednesday Minister Humphries stood where you stand now Minister Reilly, and in response to my speech stated that this was now an issue for your department. He said, and I quote, “I would be quite happy for the Minister, Deputy Reilly, to lead on this, because he is the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, and that Department has a wider remit than the Department of Social Protection on this issue.”

Therefore Minister Reilly, I ask you to include within the Children First legislation a provision to amend the Gender Recognition Act so that the exemption process for 16-18 is depathologised in a manner similar to the application process for adults and to include the creation of a process for interim gender recognition for the under 16s so that the rights of children are fully realised in that process.

Emotional Abuse

At the Committee hearings the majority of organisations and experts said “Emotional abuse” needs to be included in the definition of welfare. Emotional abuse is a form of neglect and should be explicitly stated as such.  We need to amend the Bill to include it as part of the definitions of its laws.

Schedule 3:  Offences for purposes of Paragraph (A) of Definition of “Sexual Abuse” in Section 2

I will be seeking to amend the current term “child pornography” and replace it the more apt and reflective descriptor “child sexual abuse material (CSAM)”.

According to Interpol:

“A sexual image of a child is “abuse” or “exploitation” and should never be described as “pornography”. Pornography is a term used for adults engaging in consensual sexual acts distributed (mostly) legally to the general public for their sexual pleasure. Child abuse images are not…”

Minister I have been saying this since first tabling a motion on Blocking Child Abuse Material on the Internet back in February 2012 and later in my Report on Effective Strategies to Tackle Online Child Abuse Material in September 2013, a child sexual abuse image is a crime scene, a digital record of sexual abuse being perpetrated against a real child in the real world and I will be seeking to have “child pornography” in this Bill and across our statute books amended to “child sexual abuse material” to better reflect the seriousness of the offence.

Child safeguarding statements

In Section 11, subsection 5 suggests that the Agency can request a copy of the relevant service provider’s child safeguarding statement. This enables the Agency to monitor compliance which is welcome.  However Section 12(1)(b) doesn’t specify how quickly the Agency can be furnished (“within such period as may be specified in the notice). This is rather weak- the Agency could be waiting for weeks, perhaps longer for a statement to be sent.  This should be tightened up.

I am aware that the Minister may issue regulations and Guidelines for the purpose of providing practical guidance on how to adhere to the Bill. But in the absence of a firm commitment that this will be done how will organisations and mandated people be fully aware of their new duties such as drafting the child safeguarding statement?

Also on Section 11(5), it specifies that the child safeguarding statement should be made available to the public on request.  I am aware that subsection 6 calls for it to be displayed prominently.  I ask why only on request? Surely we want all organisations to be open and transparent about the protection of children?  I believe we should be asking for statements to be publicly available (online) as a matter of course?

Non-compliance Register

13(5) why is the register of non-compliance only available to the public for inspection at reasonable times?  One of the best incentives for compliance would be a public list on the Agency website of organisations who are on the register of non-compliance.  This bill needs to change the culture of services for children in Ireland to one of openness and transparency.

Right of Appeal

12(8) A right of appeal is critical, but should the avenue of appeal not be proportionate and remain within the Agency?  If it goes to the District Court, it’ll could be tied up for months/years, and I don’t believe anyone wishes safeguarding children to be caught in court delays.


Childminders are still exempt from the provisions of the Bill. Only those providing an early years service under the meaning of the Child Care Act 1991 are included (i.e. those looking after 4 or more children (excluding their own)). This is a serious omission given the number of children placed in the care of childminders.  We omitted them from the National Vetting Bureau Act and I question why they are not included in the scope of the Bill.


I will be bringing forward amendments on the points I have raised today at Committee Stage.  I will of course given further consideration to the Children First Bill during the recess and look forward to working with you Minister to ensure the Bill achieves it stated aim.