Social workers have been urged to improve their support for 16- and 17-year-olds affected by child sexual exploitation in a week where new figures showed huge under-reporting of sexual offences among this age group.
In a keynote address at Community Care Live, leading researcher Dr Helen Beckett said that young people in this age range were “one of the groups we most frequently let down” when dealing with child sexual exploitation (CSE).
She was speaking a day before a report by The Children’s Society found that many sex crimes against older teenagers in England and Wales in the past year went “unreported and unpunished” because victims were afraid they wouldn’t be believed by the justice system.
Through Freedom of Information Requests, the charity found that police in England recorded 4,900 sexual offence cases – including sexual exploitation, rape and sexual assaults – against 16- and 17-year-olds in the past year. But its analysis of the Crime Survey for England and Wales found that an estimated 50,000 girls alone said they had been victims of these crimes.
Beckett, joint director of The International Centre: Researching child sexual exploitation, violence and trafficking, which is based at University of Bedfordshire, told delegates at Community Care Live that most young people would not report their experiences of sexual exploitation and abuse to professionals.
This was due to a number of factors, including not realising they had anything to report, guilt or shame, and a lack of confidence in practitioners’ responses. She urged delegates to “exercise professional curiosity”.
The Children’s Society’s report found that half of those young people who did not report sexual crimes to the police did not do so because they either did not consider it worth reporting, feared going to court, or because they did not want the perpetrators punished.
It also highlighted issues around the age of consent, stating: “The ability of 16 and 17 year olds to consent to sexual activity – without a clear definition of what true informed consent is in cases where an adult targets a vulnerable 16 or 17 year old for sexual favours – can make professionals reluctant or unsure about the course of action they should undertake.
“In some cases, there is a perception that once a child is 16, ‘they can look after themselves’ or have chosen to put themselves in exploitative situations, even where a relationship is clearly exploitative. The legal age of consent also makes it very difficult for the police to bring predatory adults to justice. This can leave 16 and 17 year olds who are groomed or sexually exploited completely unseen, unprotected and unsupported.”
In her conference address, Beckett said practitioners should understand the concept of “constrained choice” where young people’s decisions may seem rational to them.
“We need to recognise that a young person can concurrently be making some choices and be a victim,” she added.
She also warned that society had become so focused on one particular form of risk – that of sexual exploitation of White young women by men of Asian origin – that “we are ignoring all of the rest”.
“The message we are giving to children and young people is that we only want to hear from you if it’s that form of abuse,” she said.
Different definitions of CSE
Beckett also told delegates that they should be aware of discrepancies between the policy definition and legal offence of child sexual exploitation and how this could cause confusion among practitioners.
Under the Serious Crime Act 2015, the offence of the sexual exploitation of a child now covers the offer or provision of sexual services to another person in return for payment or a promise of payment to the child or a third person, or recording an indecent image of the child.
However, the policy definition of CSE also includes exchange for non-monetary gain, but excludes the recording of indecent images without an element of exchange.
Beckett said legislation was also clear that it didn’t matter who initiated a sexual encounter – once an agreement was made where a young person was exploited, this should be investigated.