18 Dec 2014

The Children’s Society is calling for a change in the law to protect more than 40,000 vulnerable 16 and 17-year-olds from cruelty – including sexual exploitation.

While most English law treats anyone under 18 as a child, the criminal law for child cruelty, which dates back 80 years, only protects children from neglect or ill-treatment until their 16th birthday.

It means children aged 16 and 17 are treated as adults and forced to fend for themselves. Police would find it much harder to prosecute a negligent or abusive parent or guardian of a child in this age group.

It also sends a message that they do not require the same protection as younger children. Research by The Children’s Society suggests that teenagers in this age range who experience neglect at home are often failing to receive adequate protection from professionals because they are mistakenly believed to be more resilient and able to cope with stress.

In 2010, a couple were jailed for child cruelty for allowing their adopted children to be abused by paedophiles. One of the girls was over 13 and another under 10. If the girls had been 16 or 17 the prosecution for child cruelty would not have been possible.

Last year, according to official figures, 42,260 children aged 16 or 17 in England were deemed by social services to be at “in need”, and therefore at greater risk of abuse and neglect. It is this group – some of the most vulnerable teenagers in the country – who would stand to gain most from a change in the law.

The Children’s Society is asking MPs to close this loophole by extending protections against child cruelty to this age group when it debates the Serious Crime Bill early in the New Year.

The move would involve changing the outdated Children and Young Persons Act 1933 to increase the age at which a child can be a victim of cruelty from 15 to 17, to bring criminal law in line with the rest of child protection legislation and welfare legislation for the first time and offering protection to all children.

Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, said: 'It is nonsensical and unacceptable that adults cannot be prosecuted for behaviour against children aged 16 or 17 that would be considered cruelty if the victim was 15. If MPs are serious about stopping child cruelty – including child sexual exploitation – they must act to close this legal loophole when it is debated in Parliament in the New Year.'

Case studies: Cruelty against children

• Sixteen-year-old Anna died after overdosing when her family had left her with no medical help for three days. The police were unable to prosecute members of the family under the laws set out under Children and Young Persons Act 1933 because the child was 16 not 15. The police attempted to prosecute them under the Domestic Violence Crime and Victims Act 2004 but were unable to do so as they needed to prove more than just neglect.

• In 2010, a couple were jailed for child cruelty for allowing their adopted children – one aged over 13 and another under 10 – to be abused by paedophiles. Both girls told their parents about their ordeals but nothing was done to prevent future assaults. If the girls had been 16 or 17 the prosecution for child cruelty would not have been possible.

• In 2012, a woman was jailed for subjecting three children under 16 to a catalogue of cruelty over several years by kicking them, slapping them, bathing them in cold water and gouging their eyes. One of the children was scalded with hair straighteners, deprived of food and goaded into stamping on another youngster. The woman was jailed for six years after a jury found her guilty of 11 counts of child cruelty. Had the children been 16 or 17 it would have been impossible to charge her with this offence.

Notes to Editor

• The Second Reading of the Serious Crime Bill is scheduled to take place in the House of Commons on 5 January 2015.
• The Children’s Society has helped change children’s stories for over a century. We expose injustice and address hard truths, tackling child poverty and neglect head-on. We fight for change based on the experiences of every child we work with and the solid evidence we gather. Through our campaigning, commitment and care, we are determined to give every child in this country the greatest possible chance in life.

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