Barnardo’s Cymru say a growing number of children and young people are being criminalised for sexual offences when they should be getting specialist help instead.
Welsh police forces have revealed a 55% increase in the number of children and young people being reported for sexual crimes against other children in the last four years, up from 250 to 388.
But Barnardo’s Cymru say the figures prove increased criminalisation of young people rather than an increase in inappropriate sexual behaviour and that many of the perpetrators are victims of abuse, domestic violence and neglect.
The charity believes that Wales has been leading the way in tackling harmful sexual behaviour in children and young people since 2000 when they joined with local authorities and South Wales Police to establish the Taith service to provide assessment and interventions. The model has since had an influence across the UK, Europe, Australia and North America.
Pat Duke, Assistant Director of Barnardo’s Cymru, believes the latest police figures, obtained by Barnardo’s under the Freedom of Information Act, show an increase in criminalisation rather than abuse.
“This rise in criminalisation is of huge concern, particularly as across the South Wales local authorities, this pattern is not mirrored in referrals to Taith.”
Barnardo’s Cymru and Taith are planning to raise the issue with the Welsh Government.
In the last 16 years Taith has received more than 1,500 referrals, more than a third of those young people have been sexually abused themselves, 60% exposed to domestic violence and 50% neglected.
Taith’s multi-agency approach has been adopted as part of the All Wales Child Protection Procedures which recognise that, except where the offence is particularly serious or where the child is in denial, the most appropriate mechanism for managing cases is the child protection system rather than the Criminal Justice System.
Research has proved the effectiveness of specialist help. Over a four year period the reoffending rate of those referred to Taith was just 2%, far lower than other juvenile offending.
Mr Duke said:
“It is hugely important to recognise the initial trauma and abuse which has triggered the formation of attitudes and beliefs and personality deficits which inform abuse or harm to others.
“There is an obvious link to childhood experience of abuse and trauma and Welsh Government has invested in a Barnardo’s/Cardiff University research development project to create models of early intervention on the first signs of problematic sexual behaviour in order to prevent escalation to sexual offending or involvement in child sexual exploitation.
“In many ways, we in Wales have led the way in responding to sexually harmful behaviour among children and young people and these recent figures should cause concern as to the application of the guidance and procedures, we in Wales produced.”
Case Study: Will, 15
Will was referred to the Taith Service because he had sexually touched his little sister. Taith is a specialist Service providing assessment and treatment/intervention with five to 21-year-olds who have sexually harmed others.
Will received an assessment and we were able to put together a specially tailored package to help him understand and control his harmful behaviour.
A service practitioner worked with him over 15 sessions to help him learn how to develop healthy relationships. This enabled Will to understand more about consent to sex, and his misuse of power seen in the abuse of his younger sister. He was also able to learn about the effect of his behaviour on his sister and parents.
Will continued to attend on a voluntary basis even though he found this challenging. Some of the work undertaken with Will was about the practicalities of managing his feelings in the home to avoid this happening again, or with another child.
What is most important for young people like Will is that they have positive goals in their lives and he was able to get involved in safe community activities and have ambitions for his future.
Will’s family said:
“When we first came to Taith our world had been turned upside down and we did not know which way to turn or how we could ever recover as a family. But after being involved with Taith our family is back on track. Our son is confident again and looking forward to the future. Words cannot describe how happy that makes us feel. “