Kathy Evans on society's treatment of teenagers

[First published in CYP Now, 17th March 2015]

The serious case review of more than a decade’s child sexual exploitation in Oxford was published this month. The Prime Minister immediately declared a state of ‘national threat’. Reading through the government’s set of urgent actions (many well-founded, some demanding robust interrogation) I can’t help feeling that nothing I’ve heard yet feels like the kind of national soul-searching needed if we are to shed light on the question of how we must change. How is it possible that teenage victims were perceived by anyone, let alone professionals, as consenting to their own sexual abuse?

Soul-searching suggests a process in which we look inwards, rather than pointing blame outwards; a process of questioning ourselves, our culture, beliefs, laws and attitudes; a willingness to change ideas and systems previously held on to. I would hope, for example, soul-searching might turn us towards Sweden and their remarkable reductions in child abuse and murder, societal changes they trace back to their bold Government decision to ban smacking, however unpopular among many at the time.

Far from soul-searching, however, I feel a silent collective amnesia about our own recent history. The first decade of this century was distinctive for the pervasive fear and loathing of our nation’s teenagers. It was so fierce, so tangible, that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child reported their shock at our negative public attitudes and discrimination towards teenagers in the UK’s 2009 report – the first and only ever identification of national prejudice against teenagers in the UNCRC’s history. Tony Blair regularly denounced the scourge of badly behaved teenagers, once calling in a rousing speech to the nation for an end to tolerance of ‘other people’s children’. A serving Home Secretary said that our teenagers were so terrifying she’d fear to go out at night without body guards.

The news spoke of a generation that had turned ‘feral’. Some local press I saw even printed the word ‘scum’ alongside pictures of real children, named and shamed publicly as dangerous threats to their community. Like some wild west film, a ‘pillar of shame’ of terrible ASBO teens was unveiled in Bridlington to great national applause. Shops and malls banned unsupervised schoolchildren, banned teenagers, banned hoodies, banned baseball caps. Councils and housing associations banned ball games, banned all children outdoors after 8pm, as tenancy conditions. Mosquito devices, designed to cause pain to all teenagers were invented and sold like wildfire to adults who just wanted them to go away. Teen ‘pest control’ devices complemented the new armoury of police dispersal powers, dispersal zones, curfews, fines, ISOs and ASBO conditions actively pushed by Government to solve Britain’s ‘teen nuisance’ problem. Teenagers’ mere presence on the streets of their own community was officially defined as anti-social behaviour – still recordable as such today.

As a nation we collectively lost our heads. We owe a whole generation a heartfelt apology for it. We forgot teenagers were still children, still vulnerable, deserving of our respect, care and protection. As a nation we did not listen when young people told us, over and over, they felt rejected and distrusted by society; suspected, rather than protected, by police.

As a campaigner throughout this period, challenging youth-fearing anti-social policies, warning that we should be concerned for teenagers who were in fact vulnerable and victimised on the streets, the hate mail I received after almost every media appearance I made, simply for defending teenagers, seemed proof that this fear and loathing had reached deep into the public psyche. But our conflicted national mindset about teenagers goes deeper still.

In 2003 David Blunkett offered a crate of champagne to anyone who could solve the legal conundrum created by the then Sexual Offences Bill (now Act). This Bill created a raft of new offences to severely punish child sexual exploitation – greatly welcomed by the many charities, social workers and police who had been (and still are) working so hard to improve the protection of children and successful prosecution of their abusers. The Bill defined any consent by a child under 13 as completely irrelevant to the guilt of someone charged with their abuse. Rightly so. The conundrum, however, was that as an unintended result, two 12 year olds in consenting sexual contact, such as kissing, would both automatically be guilty of a grave imprisonable offence against their friend.

We made a pitch for the champagne by explaining that the conundrum would be solved completely by raising the age of criminal responsibility. We got no champagne. But the suggestion that today’s national threat demands urgent re-training for police on consent has refreshed those memories. There is an irreconcilable conflict in our law. It sits deep at the root of public and professional perceptions that teenagers can be complicit in their own abuse. By law a 12 year old is absolutely incompetent to consent to sex, but perfectly competent to stand trial for it. No training can square this circle. If the police are there to prosecute criminals, and to protect children from them, let’s keep those things separate. The age of criminal responsibility must be raised, to protect children and childhood itself.