Clare Bracey is a Senior Campaigner at The Children’s Society, leading the organisation’s Youth at Risk campaigning work. This currently includes the charity’s priority campaign Seriously Awkward – calling on the Government to strengthen the law to protect 16 and 17 year-olds from child sexual exploitation. Clare has worked as a campaigner for twenty years at an international, national, and local level and is passionate about making positive change for young people.
With a debate in Parliament on sexual exploitation of 16 and 17 year-olds scheduled for the morning of Thursday 17th December, here she tells us about the Seriously Awkward campaign and what parents can do to help. Pace is fully supportive of everything that the Seriously Awkward campaign is trying to achieve for older teenagers who have been, or are at risk of being, sexually exploited…
16 and 17 year-olds can consent to sex in healthy relationships. But it’s seriously awkward that, because of legal inconsistencies, there is a dangerous lack of understanding about how situations where they are being coerced or groomed into sex constitutes child sexual exploitation. This means that, far too often, older teenagers are at high risk, are not seen as victims, are left without support and are unable to bring perpetrators to justice. This is something that needs to change and parents can help us call for the changes that are needed.
At high risk
Our campaign highlights some shocking statistics revealing that huge numbers of sexual offences against older teenagers in England and Wales in the last year went unreported and unpunished.
• One in ten 16 and 17 year old girls said they experienced a sexual offence in the last year.
• Three quarters of reported sexual offences against 16 and 17 year-olds ended in no police action against the perpetrator.
• Only a tiny proportion resulted in successful prosecutions.
Parents with girls often worry about sexual exploitation, but it should also be an issue for parents of boys. One in four of those who are supported by The Children’s Society’s specialist child sexual exploitation services are boys. We found that the number of male referrals increased when professionals such as social workers and the police were trained on how boys are affected by child sexual exploitation. We also know that boys are less likely to come forward and disclose abuse – only one boy in every ten girls aged 16 and 17 reported a sexual offence to the police last year.
Often not seen as victims
National scandals like those in Rochdale, Rotherham and Oxford exposed that widespread negative attitudes towards the victims and ignorance among professionals about the signs of grooming and exploitation meant that young people were not listened to and didn’t have the confidence to speak out.
This age group are often blamed for putting themselves in risky situations, even when they have been specifically targeted and groomed using alcohol, illegal drugs and legal highs – 16 and 17 year-olds being especially vulnerable targets for grooming. This can lead to teenagers not being identified as victims of child sexual exploitation and makes getting justice for sexual offences incredibly difficult. The law needs to take the role of drugs and alcohol in grooming into account and recognise that consuming alcohol or drugs cannot be equated to consent to sex. One young person supported by The Children’s Society said: ‘I would say that when you put a ‘welcome’ mat in the front of your house, no one blames you for being robbed, so there’s no point blaming yourself for what you wear or who you hang around with.’
Older teenagers are dismissed as ‘old enough to know better’, when in reality victims of sexual exploitation are commonly the most vulnerable – those in the care system, with backgrounds of abuse and neglect, or with mental health problems. But many in this age group are experiencing overwhelming pressure to get involved in activities which can leave them at risk. Earlier this year, we polled 1000 16 – 17 year olds and one in ten said they feel pressure to do things that could leave them at risk such as taking drugs, drinking alcohol or spending time with people they don’t feel comfortable with.
Not supported to cope with the trauma
Because 16 and 17 year-olds are often not seen as victims, they can struggle to get the right urgently needed therapeutic support to cope with their trauma. Local policies vary considerably from area to area; long waiting times put off older teenagers; and only around one in ten mental health trusts fast tracks child victims of sexual exploitation for help. This means that many miss out on the help they desperately need whilst their lives often become increasingly chaotic and dangerous. This lack of support can lead young people to keep returning to situations of abuse because they do not believe that they deserve anything good in their lives. One young person who disclosed sexual abuse put it: ‘Kids like me deserve this’.
Struggle to get justice
Huge numbers of sexual offences against older teenagers in England and Wales in the last year went unreported and unpunished. Victims were gripped by the fear of not being believed, were scared of the process or thought the offence wasn’t worth reporting. The Children’s Society’s case notes revealed one shocking example of why young people are intimidated by the justice system:
‘Young person has disclosed to me that the police have called her up and ‘called her a prostitute’ She said that they have told her that they know she is a prostitute and working at X, she will end up in prison like her mother and that she may have clients trying to call her. This is not appropriate language. Young person is a young woman that has been made vulnerable therefore she cannot be involved in prostitution – but is being sexually exploited.
More than three quarters of cases of reported sexual offences against 16 and 17 year-olds result in no further police action against the perpetrator and only a tiny proportion result in a successful prosecution. One young person speaking to the parliamentary inquiry into the effectiveness of legislation for tackling child sexual exploitation said: ‘I was pressurised to go to court. There needs to be a sexual exploitation law. My charge was for rape, this was the wrong charge. So many times it happened’.
Despite the fact that many laws (such as the Children Act 1989) declare than any person under the age of 18 is a child, the law protecting children from sexual offences does not afford young people aged 16 and 17 the same level of protection as younger children.
This must change
Older teenagers who have a risk of, or who have experienced, sexual exploitation face a triple whammy. They are more likely to be victims of a sexual offence. Yet they are less likely to be regarded as children who need protection when they do report cases. There is also less protection and support available when they have experienced harm.
This isn’t just awkward; it’s serious, and it has to change. The Children’s Society is asking the Government to strengthen the law so that 16 and 17 year-olds don’t fall through the cracks. The law should send a strong message that sexual offences against all children, including those aged 16 and 17, will not be tolerated.
In the New Year, we are expecting the Government to publish its Policing and Criminal Justice Bill, which could be a great opportunity to strengthen protection and access to justice for this age group. In advance of this Bill, we have been building support for the issue inside and outside of Parliament.
Thousands of parents all over the country have already joined us in telling the Government that they need to take action. We are working with parent bloggers to get the message out wider. Some have even courageously shared their personal stories of awkward and, at times, seriously awkward, experiences they had as a teenagers. In this powerful blog post, Sarah Bailey at Life in a Breakdown talked about her experiences of, at 16, falling between the cracks of child and adult mental health services, being groomed and abused by an older man and rebuilding her life with the support of friends.
Ask your MP to be at the debate in Parliament this week
The campaign is starting to get noticed in Parliament. This week there’s going to be debate in Parliament where MPs will discuss how 16-17 year-olds are not fully protected from sexual exploitation. Parliamentary debates like this are really important for getting the issues discussed in detail and ensures that we will get answers as the Government must respond directly to points made by MPs.
It’s crucial as many MPs as possible attend. You can add your voice to the campaign by calling on your MP to attend the debate and asking others to do the same. It only takes a minute but it could be just the nudge they need to get them to turn up.
The debate is happening on the morning of Thursday 17th December and you can follow @childrensociety for updates and tweet #seriouslyawkward to share your views.
Thank you for your support