Posted: 21 July 2014

We need to better protect 16- and 17-year-olds

Last week, peers in the House of Lords debated the Serious Crime Bill, which will make emotional cruelty to children under age 16 a criminal offence.

We welcome this change , but are concerned that the proposals as they stand (and existing laws on neglect) fail to protect children aged 16 and 17. We believe that the law should be further amended to protect every child under age 18 from all forms of cruelty.

Transition to adulthood can be an anxious experience for any 16- or 17-year-old, even those with loving and supportive families. However, it can be particularly difficult for young people who have unstable backgrounds. These young people must be protected from cruelty and neglect.

Some 16-year-olds face particularly significant challenges. Jessica, a young person we support and whose case was mentioned by the Bishop of Durham in the parliamentary debate last week, was always known to social services. Her family did not offer her the love and protection she needed. Instead, she was neglected and abused.

When she was 16, a combination of factors forced Jessica to move out of her family home. In the next year and a half, she lived in a hostel and a B&B. Her earlier experiences made it difficult to form meaningful relationships and she fell prey to sexual exploitation, started using drugs and developed mental health problems.

Jessica’s story is not uncommon

Stories like Jessica's are behind statistics on homelessness, neglect and unemployment. Nearly 8% of 16- and 17-year-olds are not in education, employment or training. Some 15,728 children in that age group asked local authorities for help because of homelessness.  

Local authorities recorded 14,290 children age 16 and above as ‘children in need’ because of abuse and neglect. An additional 1110 children were recognised as children at risk of significant harm and placed on child protection plan.

Such problems can be compounded by worrying attitudes of some professionals to adolescents, ranging from mistaken beliefs that adolescents are resilient and able to deal with abuse and neglect, to blaming them for problems they face. The result of this can be that the most vulnerable adolescents are left without the support and protection they need.  

What needs to change?

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as someone under the age of 18. This position is cemented by the Children Act 1989 which is the civil law, governing how services should safeguard children. 

Yet the criminal law, the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, which allows criminal prosecution in cases of cruelty to children, only covers children under age 16. 

The Children and Young Persons Act 1933 is currently being amended to recognise that emotional cruelty is as serious an offence as physical cruelty and we believe that a further change is overdue: We need to make all types of cruelty to children up to age 18 a criminal offence

The peers who spoke in support raising the age of a victim of child cruelty to 18 also agree that this change would bring the criminal law in line with the civil law (the Children Act 1989) and offer equal protection to all children. 

It will also send a strong signal to anyone who mistakenly believes that 16- and 17-year-olds can deal with problems themselves. These young people are still children and need our support and protection. 

We will keep working to ensure that children up to age 18 can be recognized as victims of child cruelty and neglect and urge the government to support this change to the law. 

By Iryna Pona - Policy team
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