Posted: 20 February 2015

We need to change the law to protect 16- and 17-year-olds

Rules in this country on who should be treated as a child are a mess. Too often, 16- and 17-year-olds fall through the gap – they don’t get the same protection under the law as younger children, yet aren’t able to live independently like adults.  

On Monday 23 February, MPs have one last chance this Parliament to close two of outdated loopholes by:

  • Extending protection for abuse and neglect to 16- and 17-year-olds and 
  • Allowing the police to use Child Abduction Warning Notices to stop potentially abusive adults from using controlling behaviour to prevent a 16- or 17-year-old from returning home.

You can help: Tell your MP how important it is to protect all children.

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Protect all children

Tell your MP to ensure that 16- and 17-year-olds are better protected.

Change the law to protect 16- and 17-year-olds from abuse and neglect

Last year in England, 78,000 children aged 16 and 17 were recorded as ‘children in need’ by their local authorities. The main reasons they required help from children’s services were: 25,000 were victims of abuse and neglect (35% of all cases), family dysfunction (18%), family in acute stress (11%) and absent parenting (11%). 

Our analysis of these figures show that 16- and 17-year-olds are more likely to be classified as being in need because of abuse and neglect than any other age group: One in 50 are considered 'in need because of abuse and neglect'. 

Percentage of children in need because of abuse and neglect, by ageSerious crime bill graph

Yet when the parents or carers treat vulnerable 16- or 17-year-olds with cruelty and neglect, they cannot be prosecuted the same way as parents of children under the age of 16. This is because of the outdated law from 1933, that says that only children under 16 can be victims of child cruelty and neglect.

Our recent survey found that when parents are told that only children up to the age of 15 are protected from abuse and neglect, more than 80% want older children to be protected.

This is something that can have tragic results. Recently, Billie (not her real name) died from an overdose after her family had left her with no medical help for three days. The police were unable to prosecute members of her family under the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 because she was 16, and so no longer a child under this 82-year-old law. 

The police attempted to prosecute them under the Domestic Violence Crime and Victims Act 2004 but were unable to as they needed to prove more than just neglect.

Allow the police to break up potentially abusive situations with 16- and 17-year-olds

Child Abduction Warning Notices are a vital tool to disrupt contact between a vulnerable child and an adult where the police are concerned the child is at risk of harm. 

Despite this the police are not able to use a Child Abduction Warning Notice to protect a 16- or a 17-year-old unless they have gone missing from local authority care.  

Older teenagers are more likely to be reported missing than any other age group.

We believe that this protection should be made available to protect other vulnerable 16- and 17-year-olds. The police forces in both Greater Manchester and Cheshire have called on the Government to allow them to use these notices to protect 16- and 17-year-olds.

This is also something that can lead to an awful result. When Alison (that’s not her real name) was 15, the police stepped in twice to protect her from being influenced by a 25 year old man, who they believed posed a serious risk to her. However, once she turned 16 the Child Abduction Warning Notice that protected her could no longer be used due to her age and they were unable to prevent him getting back in touch with her. He eventually supplied her with the drugs that led to her death by overdose.

What needs to happen

We believe that outdated laws on child cruelty need to be updated so parents looking after a 16- or 17-year-old can be prosecuted if they abuse or neglect them and the police can break up potentially abusive situations where they believe an adult is controlling a vulnerable 16- or 17-year-old.

You can read more about the Serious Crime Bill in our policy section to find out more about this issue.  The report stage is on Monday, and we hope MPs take this opportunity to extend these protections to vulnerable teenagers.

By Jonathan Blay - Policy team
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Protect all children

Tell your MP to ensure that 16- and 17-year-olds are better protected.

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