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‘Children are children first, and offenders second’

This week saw the publication of the parliamentary inquiry into children and harmful sexual behaviour. Here, Jonathan Rallings, Assistant Director for Policy at Barnardo’s, explains why it’s time to break the taboo and start doing something positive to help vulnerable children


Barnardo’s work with the most vulnerable children brings us into contact with some of the more uncomfortable and challenging realities facing young people today in our society.

Our proximity to young runaways and children in care meant that we were well aware of the growing problem of child sexual exploitation (CSE) as long ago as the 1990s.  Yet it is only much more recently that we have seen the taboo broken against the discussion of this horrific crime in the wider media and public debate. Although the stories have not been easy to digest, and the conversations not easy to have, it is of little doubt that in breaking this taboo, we have become better equipped to safeguard children in this country.

It is with this in mind – that regardless of the difficulty of the subject, the safeguarding of children is paramount – that this week Barnardo’s has attempted to breach another taboo, surrounding the discomforting area of children displaying harmful sexual behaviour (HSB). 

Over the past four months, Barnardo’s has been supporting a Parliamentary Inquiry into this greatly misunderstood topic.  Led by Nus Ghani MP (Con, Wealden), the Inquiry heard from experts in the field, as well as children themselves convicted of serious sexual offences.  What it has found is concerning.

Like CSE, and child sexual abuse in general, it is obviously difficult to get definitive figures on such a hidden issue.  But we do know that 1/3 of sex offences are committed by under-18s, and over 4,000 offences by children were recorded last year.  And what the Inquiry heard from both Barnardo’s services and other sources, is that those working in this area believed that both the extent and the severity of HSB is increasing – while the age of perpetrators is getting younger.

Yet despite calls for a national strategy dating back 25 years or more, successive governments have turned a blind eye to the issue, preferring to ignore children exhibiting inappropriate or concerning sexual behaviour – until they offend and find themselves in the criminal justice system. 

‘There are growing signs that this problem cannot be ignored for much longer’

Little effort has been put into understanding children’s natural sexual development, where and how they might make mistakes, and what action should be taken to prevent them reoffending or offending in the first place (there is good evidence that the younger the child the more successful rehabilitation approaches can be).

The Inquiry heard, though, that there are growing signs that this problem cannot be ignored for much longer.  Whilst our recent understanding, post-Savile and Rotherham, of the scale of sexual abuse and exploitation means we would be churlish to think HSB is an entirely new phenomenon, it is nevertheless becoming a much more visible issue. 

‘Sexting’ means that what might previously have happened ‘behind the bike sheds’ can be graphically distributed through smartphones to a whole school.  There is also growing evidence that the vastly greater exposure to pornography facilitated by broadband internet is radically altering the emerging generation’s expectations of sex and sexuality – with many not fully understanding what is and isn’t ‘normal’, or even basic concepts such as ‘consent’ or ‘love’.

It must also be remembered that many children who display HSB have often experienced or witnessed physical, emotional or sexual abuse, as well as neglect.  Newspaper scare stories of ‘child sex offenders aged three’ may make headlines, but we need to understand what experiences could possibly make a toddler aware of sex at that age, let alone become an offender. 

In this sense we are confused as a society. On the one hand, in the wake of the child sexual exploitation crisis, we understand that a child under 16 cannot consent to their own abuse – even thankfully removing the term ‘child prostitute’ from the statute books.  Yet a child over 10 is deemed perfectly capable of being a sex offender.  These positions are not entirely consistent.

‘The argument must be made against automatically treating children as mini sex offenders’

It should be stressed that Barnardo’s is not suggesting that some young people should not be held responsible for their actions. In some extreme cases, a criminal justice response may be necessary and completely justified. 

But the argument must be made against automatically treating children as mini sex offenders – particularly when stigmatising a child in this way can prevent them moving on with their life, making the risk of them going on to offend in adulthood far more likely. 

Many parents nowadays will be acutely aware that their child might become a victim of sexual abuse, but it is worth wondering how many consider how easily their child might be labelled an ‘offender’ given how simply a smartphone can be used to create images of the sort that, under current laws, would constitute a serious criminal offence.

The report reminds us that many children will make mistakes whilst exploring their sexuality and it is in the interests of society to identify which pose an ongoing risk and which can be rehabilitated through therapy. 

Our services work successfully with many of these young people and are fully convinced that regardless of whether criminal sanctions are required, therapeutic support is in the best interests of both the child and society more widely.  We must remember children are children first, and offenders second.

The full report can be read here.


Image: Jessie Jacbonson, CC-BY SA 2.0