Thousands of teenagers in England and Wales are too scared to go to the police if they have been raped, sexually exploited or victims of sexual assault, a damning report has warned.
Huge numbers of sex crimes against 16 and 17 year olds are going unreported and unpunished, The Children's Society says.
In the last year, police recorded around 4,900 sexual offence cases against this age group. However, statistics from the Crime Survey for England and Wales reveal approximately 50,000 girls alone say they have been victims of rape or sexual assault.
Although the 1998 Children's Act classes any person under the age of 18 as a child, laws protecting children from sexual crimes do not afford young people aged 16 and 17 the same protection as those younger than the legal age of consent.
One in ten 16 and 17 year old females experienced a sexual offence in the past year.
According to the report, published on Wednesday, half of young people who did not report the crimes said it was because they were "not worth reporting". Others cited fear of going to court, or not wanting their abusers to be punished, while many do not go to the police, for fear they will be judged - or not believed at all, the organisation warns.
Of the sexual crimes relating to 16 and 17 year olds, fewer than one in five ended in charges or summons. Eight out of 10 sexual crimes recorded are closed without any further action.
A quarter of all child sexual abuse cases resulted in no prosecution, while one in four that are prosecuted are unsuccessful, according to figures released by the Crown Prosecution Service under a Freedom of Information request.
"The legal age of consent also makes it very difficult for the police to bring predatory adults to justice," the report notes. "This can leave 16 and 17 year olds who are groomed or sexually exploited completely unseen, unprotected and unsupported.”
The Children's Society released a 'Seriously Awkward' report earlier this year, which revealed 16 and 17 year olds had a "heightened vulnerability", and Wednesday's research shows females in this age group are at the highest risk of being victims of sexual offences (8.6%) compared to those over 18.
The report, which analysed FOI requests, crime surveys and case studies from 30 young people, also found there was no support available to victims in this age group.
"Disturbingly, these stories show that sexual abuse in itself can become the form of self-harm," the report says. "Young people keep returning to situations of abuse because they do not believe that they deserve anything good in their lives."
"A young person told me several times she deserves everything she has experienced because she shouldn’t have been born and that when she tried to take an overdose, if she was successful then it would have been better for everyone." - case worker, The Children's Society
"Our interviews with practitioners highlight severe shortages of therapeutic support services for young people who experienced abuse," the report notes.
"It is frequently the case that a child who has experienced abuse will not get access to mental health support unless, or until, they have a diagnosable condition – this is simply too late to prevent suffering. In many areas, long waiting times put off older teenagers whose lives may be volatile and the window of opportunity to engage with them may be very short."
Matthew Reed, CEO of The Children’s Society, said: “Dangerous inconsistencies in the law mean that vulnerable 16 and 17 year olds receive neither the same basic protections as younger children to keep them safe, nor the same rights as adults.
“Older teenagers who have experienced sexual exploitation face a triple whammy: they are more likely to be victims of sexual abuse, yet they are less likely to be regarded as children who need protection when they do report cases, and there is also less protection and support available when they have experienced harm.
“This report once again demonstrates that the legal framework is not always on the side of vulnerable young people, particularly 16 and 17 year olds, when it comes to protecting them from exploitative adults. We see too many barriers to protecting young people at risk of harm.”
Useful helplines and websites:
Victim Support - Visitvictimsupport.org.uk or call 0808 168 9111
Sexual Abuse Referral Centres - Find a SARC
Rape Crisis - Visit rapecrisis.org.uk or call 0808 802 9999
The Rape and Abuse Line - Visit rapeandabuseline.co.uk or call 0808 800 0123 (answered by women) or 0808 800 0122 (answered by men).