Child prostitutes 'in need of protection'

Youngsters on the streets: Charity urges change of approach as police report rise in number prosecuted and cautioned for soliciting
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Child prostitutes should be protected rather than prosecuted, a Church of England charity said yesterday.

The Children's Society said the number of girls involved was steadily increasing and it urged police and social services to do more to help them. Launching its report, The Game's Up: Redefining Child Prostitution, the society said that between 1989 and 1993 nearly 1,500 convictions were secured against those under 18 for offences relating to prostitution. In the same period, 1,800 cautions were issued.

The number of cautions issued to girls between the ages of 10 and 16 went up by 50 per cent, and convictions for this age group increased by 10 per cent. The problem is concentrated in four areas - London, Greater Manchester, West Midlands and West Yorkshire - which account for 70 per cent of cautions and 75 per cent of convictions.

The problem is not restricted to older teenagers. One 10-year-old girl received a caution, four convictions were secured against 12-year-old girls and two against 14-year-old boys.

The Channel 4 programme Dispatches, to be shown tonight, has conducted a police survey which reveals that "alarming" and "wildly disproportionate" numbers of child prostitutes are from care homes. Between half and three- quarters of prostitutes under 18 come from homes, despite the fact that only 1 per cent of all children are in care.

In Bradford, where 74 juveniles have been arrested in the past 18 months and a further 50 have been cautioned, police estimate that 75 per cent of the cases have involved children in care.

David Harris, a community worker in Manchester, told the programme: "The majority of young people we meet working the streets come from a care background. They have been exploited, they have been abused. They are not used to operating in an environment where their voice is heard, where they are cared for and nurtured."

Ian Sparks, chief executive of the Children's Society, said prostitution was often a "survival strategy" for such children, and that police and social services must do more. "These children need the system to protect them not prosecute them."

Under the 1989 Children Act, police and social services have a duty to protect those under 18 from "significant harm" and investigate those who sexually abuse and exploit them. However, research shows that most social services departments' child protection procedures do not specifically include those involved in prostitution. Young people picked up by the police are often cautioned or convicted instead of being dealt with by child protection officers.

The society wants the Street Offences Act of 1959 to be amended so that no one under of the age of 18 can be cautioned or convicted for involvement in prostitution.

Bill Hendley, children and families spokesman for the Association of Directors of Social Services, said, however, that he believed the law as it stood offered sufficient protection. "Any relaxation might drive child prostitution further from the notice, care and protection of the public authorities," he warned.