Concerning rise in children committing serious sexual abuse as ‘normalised’ online behaviour escalates

21 May 2024, 06:00 | Updated: 21 May 2024, 06:11

More than half of all investigations with a child victim are now being committed by other children.
More than half of all investigations with a child victim are now being committed by other children. Picture: Alamy
Fraser Knight.

By Fraser Knight.

The Home Secretary has been warned against criminalising a generation as LBC hears of a 'significant' rise in the number of young people committing child sexual abuse.

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James Cleverly met with police leaders in Essex on Monday as he marks one year of a specialist task force, set up to tackle grooming and child sexual exploitation.

But police investigators and partner agencies expressed concerns and challenges they’re facing around the number of young boys who are now committing extreme sexual acts.

The Home Secretary was told more than half of all investigations with a child victim are now being committed by other children as they see ‘normalised’ sexual behaviours escalating.

“The issue with [explicit] image sharing is that a lot of children that we talk to say they see that as a normal behaviour, whether we like that or not,” one investigator told him, “and we’re seeing that escalate into more serious behaviours - including in groups.”

The growing number of young boys committing sexual crimes has been put down to easy access many have to violent pornography online.

Ian Critchley, who’s the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection, said that access to that sort of material has to be restricted.

James Cleverly speaks to LBC about the 'concerning' rise in the number of young people committing child sexual abuse

He said: “The tech companies play a huge role in that and they must start really stepping up to the mark.

“Over the last year we’ve seen a significant increase in peer-on-peer offending and it’s really important that we understand what’s behind that offending.

“I don’t want to criminalise a whole generation of young people, if they’re sharing a self generated indecent image with another partner.

“But on the other end of the spectrum, we’ve got more children - sometimes acting in groups - committing really serious offences of rape and sexual exploitation and of course we need to put them through the criminal justice system but also work with schools to prevent that behaviour.”

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Since the new dedicated ‘Grooming Gangs Taskforce’ was set up last April, more than 550 suspects have been arrested and more than 4,000 victims identified and protected.

Specialist training has also been delivered to 400 officers across the country.

James Cleverly was shown a number of cases which have been investigated by officers in Essex, including one 24 year-old man who had 351 suspected victims on Instagram and Snapchat, where he posed as a teenage girl.

He was jailed for 21 years and was in custody just eight months after the investigation into him had started.

The Home Secretary was also told of other ongoing investigations - including of two under-18s, which the investigating officer said was “proving difficult” because of their age.

James Cleverly met with police leaders in Essex.
James Cleverly met with police leaders in Essex. Picture: LBC

The MP for Chelmsford, Vicky Ford, who joined the visit suggested the law should be changed when it comes to young offenders.

She said: “Over the past few years, we’ve gone a long way to say that when children commit crimes we need to treat them as victims themselves,” but asked, “do we need to rethink some of the way that we treat that cohort?”

Speaking to LBC, James Cleverly says he believes the legislation is in the right place, though, and that police are getting the right training to deal with the growing threat.

“The police recognise that there’s a sensitivity in the policing of children - whether they be victims or perpetrators - but what they don’t want to do is criminalise normal and healthy behaviour,” he said.

“Recognising the difference between inappropriate and coercive behaviour and innocent relationships between teenagers is key.

“We’ve given the police the powers they need now to tackle these offences, and the training means they’re better at identifying the areas where they need to be protected.

James Cleverly has warned against 'criminalising a generation'.
James Cleverly has warned against 'criminalising a generation'. Picture: Alamy

“Children are sometimes perpetrators of crime as well as being victims and we need to protect them.”

Mark Russell, chief executive of the Children’s Society said: “Significant numbers of young people are experiencing harm, both online and offline. 

“It’s a very complex situation and each of these cases need to be dealt with on a case by case basis. I think we need to be helping children in school be better educated, we need a big programme to help keep children safe online. Prevention is a very important part of it. 

“We don’t want to overly criminalise children but at the same time if a child has committed an offence they need to be dealt with under the criminal justice process.”

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