Children guilty of sexual abuse should not be 'unnecessarily criminalised'

Figures from police forces in England and Wales show 4,209 children and young people under 18 were recorded as having committed sexual offences against other young people and children. Although experts speaking to the inquiry seemed almost unanimous in agreeing that the volume of reported incidents and the degree of offences were rising, the reasons were not certain. On 11th July 2016, the Guardian reported that a cross-party parliamentary panel, in partnership with Barnardo’s, released a report titled “Now I know it was wrong” based on their inquiry set up to examine how we should respond to children who display harmful sexual behaviour (HSB).

One issue has become clear amongst the raising numbers of children displaying HSB according to the panel - a consistent national strategy is needed for tackling growing concerns about access to extreme pornography, the sharing of naked images online and sexting. Linked to this issue was the lack of education for children regarding sex. The panel stated that there was a lack of any legal requirement for age-appropriate sex and relationship education in academy schools. Barnardo’s chief executive, Javed Khan, said “it is imperative children receive high-quality, age-appropriate information and advice about healthy relationships. They also need to understand what sexual conduct is illegal, like ‘sexting’, and the penalties and consequences of their actions.” Additionally, Nusrat Ghani (Conservative MP for Wealden) who led the inquiry, argues that “the key to this little-understood problem is prevention and protection, so the government must work with schools, local authorities, police and voluntary organisations to tackle it”.

Furthermore, the report highlights inconsistencies in support for children and sanctions against them across England. The inquiry found that services across England ranged “from preventative to punitive” and that children with the same behaviours might be treated very differently in different parts of the country. As Khan argues, the reasons behind abuse must also be addressed in order to tackle the rise in sexual offences amongst children- “we must remember that many children who show harmful sexual behaviour have experienced or witnessed physical, emotional or sexual abuse as well as neglect and can be extremely vulnerable. Automatically treating them as mini sex offenders prevents them being rehabilitated and living positive lives. In some cases, a criminal justice response may be necessary, but we have to find a much better way to stop children abusing themselves and each other.” Therefore, the inquiry concluded that children and young people should not be “unnecessarily criminalised” for displaying HSB towards others.  Treating children who display HSB as mini sex offenders “not only fails to pay due consideration to the trauma they may have experienced but also overlooks that children and young people are more likely than adults to achieve successful rehabilitation”.

Ultimately, combined with an ever-growing inability for parents to control what their children are exposed to on the internet (the Children’s Commissioner for England suggested two in five children from the ages 11-16 had seen explicit content by design or accident) and a lack of sexual education at schools, it is clear that more protective steps must be implemented to expose children to more informative and appropriate information regarding sex. Nevertheless, while the panel did note that they understood parents cannot control everything their children view on the internet, as one panel member noted “if a child drinks a whole bottle of whisky in the family home, we would question why his or her parents did not prevent this from happening.”

Read the Guardian’s news report here.