This week Parliament raised the crucial issue of how older teens are affected by child sexual exploitation, their particular vulnerability to this horrific crime and the need for them to get greater protection.
As MPs across the political divide rightly recognised, 16 and 17 year old victims of sexual exploitation too often are being left to shoulder the responsibility to report abuse rather than being given the protection in law that they need.
At The Children's Society we know from our frontline services that, too often, older teenagers are dismissed as 'old enough to know better' and, as a result often are not identified as victims of child sexual exploitation. In reality, many are being specifically targeted and groomed by abusers who use alcohol, illegal drugs and legal highs to manipulate them. Many are vulnerable, have been in care, experienced abuse and neglect or have mental health problems.
National scandals including those in Rochdale, Rotherham and Oxford, reveal how widespread negative attitudes towards the victims of sexual exploitation are. And ignorance among professionals of how to recognise grooming and exploitation, which mean that young people are not listened to, which causes many to lack the confidence to speak out.
The Children's Society's Seriously Awkward campaign is highlighting how, despite the fact that 16 and 17 year olds are at high risk of being victims of sexual crimes, huge numbers of sexual offences against older teenagers in England and Wales in the last year went unreported and unpunished. What we found, as seen in our report Old Enough To Know Better? Why sexually exploited teenagers are being overlooked, is alarming:
• One in ten 16 and 17 year old girls said they experienced a sexual offence in the last year.
• Half of young people who did not report sexual crimes to the police said they didn't because they either did not consider it worth reporting, feared going to court, or because they did not want the perpetrators punished.
• Out of three quarters of reported sexual offences against 16 and 17 year olds there was no police action against the perpetrator.
Despite obligations to protect all children up to the age of 18 from harm, laws currently mean the police cannot step in and protect older teenagers in the same way that they can protect children under 16.
It is vital the Government strengthens the law so that 16 and 17 year olds who are being sexually exploited or who are at risk of this abuse are protected from harm and can get the help they need and the justice they deserve.
Next year we are expecting the Government to publish the Policing and Criminal Justice Bill. This is an important opportunity to make the necessary legal changes to protect this particularly vulnerable age group. There is no time to waste.
To find out more about how you can help, see www.childrenssociety.org.uk/emilysstory