Sunday, 5 February 2017

Child on child sex offending – the dangers of a moral panic

Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act from police forces in England by Barnardo’s show some large percentage rises in allegations of child sexual abuse committed by children.

The BBC’s headline proclaims: “Child on child sex offences 'may be next scandal'”. The Daily Mail trumpets - “Claims of child sex offences committed by other children almost doubles in just four years with more than 9,000 reported in 2016”.

There is no area of public policy where a moral panic is less acceptable.

Logic and verifiable evidence are required here, not myths, half-truths, ‘alt-facts’ and knee-jerk conclusions. The risks of getting this issue wrong are two-fold: some children who need to be protected will not be and, alternatively, some children will be wrongly criminalised. Neither is an acceptable outcome.

In my view, the Barnardo’s figures need to be treated with caution, while not being dismissed. The huge differences in the percentage rise between different police forces is an important signal that the figures may be more about how alleged abuse is reported and recorded than about what is actually happening to children and young people. While some police forces are reporting percentage rises of more than 300% over the period 2013-16 (Warwickshire, Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Surrey) the national rate of increase is reported as being only 78%, suggesting that many forces may have quite low rates of increase.

Whatever happens nobody should jump to any quick conclusions on the basis of these figures alone. There needs to be further investigation before any policy or practice changes are proposed. There are some children who engage in sexually harmful behaviour, but the very last thing we need, to adapt Stanley Cohen’s own words, is a situation in which some innocent children emerge “to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests”.