On Friday, the British children’s charity Barnardo’s published statistics suggesting that the number of reported cases of alleged child-on-child sex offences has increased to an average of more than 20 a day. The report, based on freedom-of-information (FOI) requests, claims that ‘recorded cases of children committing sexual offences against other children rocketed by 78 per cent in England and Wales between 2013 and 2016’.
The chief executive of Barnardo’s, Javed Khan, said: ‘Barnardo’s warned last year that unless child-on-child sexual abuse is dealt with head-on, it may become the next scandal in our society. These results are another wake-up call to the extent of the problem.’ Its website went on to say that the figures ‘strengthen calls by the UK’s leading children’s charity for action to tackle the growing problem of children sexually harming each other’.
This is not the first time FOI requests have been used to ‘expose’ the extent of peer-to-peer sexual abuse. In 2015, a BBC news report based on FOI requests claimed there were 5,500 sexual offences recorded in UK schools between 2011 and 2014, of which ‘at least a fifth’ were carried out by children.
Let’s be clear: this is deeply irresponsible and misleading reporting. These figures only indicate the number of ‘reported’ offences in a given area. In other words, they show how many people picked up the phone and made a complaint that a child had committed something that could be classified as a sexual criminal offence against another child. They provide no detail about what these children were accused of, which could range from anything from unwanted touching to rape. We have no idea what the nature of the evidence was in any of the reported cases. And we don’t know how many resulted in proceedings or convictions. To consider these figures in isolation and treat them as evidence of widespread peer-to-peer abuse is simply wrong.
A closer look at these statistics immediately shows how problematic they are. Barnardo’s points out that there were 5,215 reports made in 2013. The Ministry of Justice’s youth justice and crime statistics show that young people were convicted of 1,653 sexual offences in 2013-14. This accounts for around two per cent of youth offending overall. This number included offences committed by young people against adults, so the number of convictions related to peer-to-peer abuse would have been even lower. So we can say conclusively that fewer than half of the reports of peer-to-peer abuse made in 2013 translated into criminal convictions.