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Report warns of children being wrongly treated as ‘mini sex offenders’

Now I know it was wrong – Parliamentary inquiry into support and sanctions for children who display harmful sexual behaviour, Barnardo’s

The report of the parliamentary inquiry investigating children who display harmful sexual behaviour says that children should be treated as children first and should not be unnecessarily criminalised.

Details

The parliamentary inquiry was set up by Nusrat Ghani MP, in partnership with Barnardo’s, to examine how we respond to children who display harmful sexual behaviour. The inquiry heard evidence from a large number of organisations, individuals, MPs and young people in a wide-ranging investigation into children who display harmful sexual behaviour.

The report made a number of findings:

  • Children who display harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) should be treated as children first and foremost  [page 39]
  • Children who sexually abuse other children have often already suffered abuse and trauma themselves  [page 6]
  • An overly punitive approach risked criminalising some young people, including those who have made a ‘mistake’ in their adolescent development, or those with a learning difficulty or disability [page 33]

It noted that figures from police forces in England and Wales show that 4,209 children and young people under 18 were recorded as perpetrators of sexual offences against other children and young people in 2013-14. Older figures from the Home Office indicate that 20 per cent of those found guilty or cautioned for a sexual offence in England and Wales were under 18. However the the report indicated that this figure could be much higher and that there was a risk of under-reporting.[page 15]

The report contains case studies and flow charts for best practice.

The report acknowledged that children “make mistakes as they start to understand their sexuality and experiment with it” and “These children are unlikely to pose further risk to the public, given appropriate support, but unnecessarily criminalising or stigmatising them as a sex offender at such a young age makes it more likely that they will struggle to regain a normal life, and increases their propensity to re-offend”.[page 6]

“Harmful sexual behaviour covers a wide spectrum, and whilst at the extreme end only a small number of children will be at risk, we now live in an age where children sharing sexual images online and through ‘sexting’ has become ubiquitous. Technology also means that children are being exposed to ever more extreme pornography at an ever earlier age, which can distort the way they come to understand relationships. It is hardly surprising that more children are at risk not only of becoming a victim of sexual abuse, but also inadvertently finding themselves labelled a ‘perpetrator’”.[page 2]

The recommendations include:

  • The Government should work with relevant partners to develop a national strategy for preventing and responding to harmful sexual behaviour in children [page 39]
  • The Government should work closely with schools, local government, the voluntary sector and others to improve support for parents in keeping their children safe from HSB; Increase children’s knowledge and understanding of safe and healthy relationships; and restrict access to inappropriate online content [page 40]
  • The Government should work with partners to commission research to further our understanding of harmful sexual behaviour [page 41]

Read the full report here.

Commentary

The report stresses the importance of dealing with children who engage in harmful sexual behaviour in a more therapeutic, supportive and rehabilitative way, away from criminalisation.

In relation to sexting it states that “there are signs that we are moving away from criminalisation of children in relation to lower level sexual offences. The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) is currently drawing up guidance for police forces on how to respond to cases of sexting”.

Given the findings and recommendations in this report, and the forthcoming guidance from the NPCC, practitioners may find it helpful to refer to this report when representing children at the police station and in court for sexual offences.

The report highlights the importance for practitioners in advocating for a more therapeutic, supportive and rehabilitative outcome for those that commit more serious sexual offences in recognition that this is in the ‘best interests’ of the child and will also help prevent re-offending. Practitioners should also bear this report in mind when trying to avoid the criminalisation of children for more minor sexual offences including sexting.