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Call for more protection of vulnerable 16 and 17-year olds

The Children’s Society seeks amendments to Serious Crime Bill

The Children's Society is calling for a change in the law to protect more than 40,000 vulnerable 16 and 17-year-olds from cruelty – including sexual exploitation.

While most English law treats anyone under 18 as a child, the criminal law for child cruelty, which dates back 80 years, only protects children from neglect or ill-treatment until their 16th birthday. Accordingly, children aged 16 and 17 are treated as adults and have to fend for themselves. Police would find it much harder to prosecute a negligent or abusive parent or guardian of a child in this age group.

Research by The Children's Society suggests that teenagers in this age range who experience neglect at home are often failing to receive adequate protection from professionals because they are mistakenly believed to be more resilient and able to cope with stress.

The charity says that last year, according to official figures, 42,260 children aged 16 or 17 in England were deemed by social services to be at "in need", and therefore at greater risk of abuse and neglect. It is this group – some of the most vulnerable teenagers in the country – who would stand to gain most from a change in the law.

The Children's Society is asking MPs to extend protections against child cruelty to this age group when it debates the Serious Crime Bill early in the New Year.

The move would involve changing the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 to increase the age at which a child can be a victim of cruelty from 15 to 17, to bring criminal law in line with the rest of child protection legislation and welfare legislation for the first time and offering protection to all children.

Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children's Society, said:

'It is nonsensical and unacceptable that adults cannot be prosecuted for behaviour against children aged 16 or 17 that would be considered cruelty if the victim was 15. If MPs are serious about stopping child cruelty – including child sexual exploitation – they must act to close this legal loophole when it is debated in Parliament in the New Year.'