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10.4 Multi-Agency Protocol for Identifying and Responding to Cases of Harm Arising from Under Age Sexual Activity


  1. Introduction
  2. All Children
  3. Legislation
  4. Recording
  5. Information Sharing

1. Introduction

1.1 When working with sexually active children and young people, there will be cases that present causes for concern, particularly relating to underage sexual activity, which are likely to raise difficult issues and must be handled particularly sensitively whilst promoting the rights of children and young people.
1.2 This Protocol has been written to assist practitioners in all settings, including those who offer termination of pregnancy services, in such cases to identify where such sexual activity and/or sexual relationships may be abusive, and where the children and young people may need the provision of protection or additional services.
1.3 It emphasises the need for practitioners to work together in accurately assessing the risk of Significant Harm when a child or young person is engaged in sexual activity.

2. All Children 

2.1 A child under 13 is not legally capable of consenting to sexual activity and any offence involving a child under 13 should be taken to indicate that the child is suffering or likely to suffer Significant Harm. Cases of sexual activity involving children under 13 should always be discussed with a nominated child protection lead in the organisation and a decision made as to whether the information should be shared with other agencies and a referral made to Children’s Social Work Services. All such case discussions should be fully documented including detailed reasons where a decision is made not to share the information. These decisions should be exceptional and only made with the documented approval of a senior manager.
2.2 Sexual activity with a child aged under 16 years is also an offence. Where it is consensual it may be less serious than if the child were aged under 13 years but may, nevertheless, have serious consequences for the welfare of the young person. Consideration should be given in every case of sexual activity involving a child or young person aged 13 to 15 as to whether there should be a discussion with other agencies and whether a referral should be made to Children's Social Work Services. Within this age range the younger the child the stronger the presumption must be that sexual activity will be a matter of concern. Anyone concerned about such sexual activity should initially discuss this with the designated person in their agency or organisation responsible for child protection and subsequently with other agencies if required. Where confidentiality needs to be preserved a discussion can still take place as long as it does not identify the child (directly or indirectly). Where there is reasonable cause to suspect that significant harm to a child has occurred, or is likely to occur, there should be a presumption that the case is reported to Children's Social Work Services and a Strategy Discussion should be held to discuss appropriate next steps. All discussions should be recorded, including where a decision is taken not to share information, giving reasons for action taken and who was spoken to.

Sexual activity involving a 16 or 17 year old, even if it does not involve an offence, may still involve harm or the likelihood of harm being suffered. Professionals should still bear in mind the considerations and processes outlined in this guidance in assessing whether harm is being suffered, and should share information as appropriate. It is an offence for a person to have a sexual relationship with a 16 or 17 year old if they hold a position of trust or authority in relation to them.

See also Allegations against Persons who work with Children Procedure and Child Sexual Exploitation Procedure.
2.4 In some cases urgent action may need to be taken to safeguard and promote the welfare of the child/young person. However, in most circumstances, there should be time for reasoned consideration of what is in the best interests of the child/young person. This must include seeking the views of the child/young person about the concerns and any referral to Children's Social Work Services.
2.5 In order to determine whether the sexual activity/relationship presents a risk to the child/young person, the following factors should be considered. A consideration of these factors will be relevant in considering whether to consult others/make a referral and, where a referral is made, will assist the assessment by Children's Social Work Services in determining their response to the referral, including the need for a Strategy Discussion.

This list is not exhaustive and other factors may need to be taken into account.

  • The age of the child/young person. Sexual activity at a young age is a very strong indicator that there are risks to the welfare of the child/young person (whether boy or girl) and, possibly, others;
  • The level of maturity and understanding of the child/young person;
  • What is known about the child/young person's living circumstances or background, including any vulnerabilities;
  • Age imbalance, in particular where there is a significant age difference and/or where the sexual partner is in a position of trust in relation to the child/young person;
  • Overt aggression or power imbalance;
  • Coercion or bribery;
  • The nature of the relationship between the child/young person and the sexual partner. (Young people under the age of 18 are not deemed able to give consent if the sexual activity is with an adult in a position of trust or a family member as defined by the Sexual Offences Act 2003.)
  • Behaviour of the child/young person i.e. withdrawn, anxious;
  • The misuse of substances as a disinhibitor;
  • Whether the child/young person's own behaviour, because of the misuse of substances, places him/her likely to suffer harm so that he/she is unable to make an informed choice about any activity;
  • Whether any attempts to secure secrecy have been made by the sexual partner, beyond what would be considered usual in a teenage relationship;
  • Whether the child/young person denies, minimises or accepts concerns;
  • Whether sex has been used to gain favours e.g. swapped for cigarettes, alcohol or CD's
  • Whether the child/young person has a lot of money or other valuable things that cannot be accounted for
  • Whether the methods used are consistent with grooming; and
  • Whether the sexual partner/s is known by one of the agencies as having other concerning relationships with similar young people

If any agency has information to indicate that an individual over the age of 16 is engaging in a series of sexual relationships with a young person under the age of 16, to the extent that this raises concerns that they may present a risk to children and young people, then they should discuss the information with the designated person in their agency in order to consider a referral to Children's Social Work Services.

3. Legislation

3.1 The Sexual Offences Act 2003 reinforces that, whilst mutually agreed, non-exploitative sexual activity between young people does take place and that often no harm comes from it, the age of consent should still remain at 16. This acknowledges that young people are potentially vulnerable when engaging in sexually active behaviour.
3.2 Under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, penetrative sex with a child under 13 is classed as rape and a referral should be made to Children’s Social Work Services and the Police.

4. Recording

4.1 All discussions between practitioners within organisations and with other agencies should be fully documented including giving detailed reasons where a decision is taken not to share information.
4.2 Children and young people should be made aware of any information that is being recorded to ensure a true reflection of the discussion which has taken place.

5. Information Sharing

5.1 Decisions to share information, including breaching a young person's confidentiality by sharing information with other professionals and parents/carers, will be taken having regard to the principles set out in Information Sharing and Confidentiality Procedure.
5.2 Given the responsibility that parents have for the conduct and welfare of their children, professionals should encourage the young person, at all points, to share information with their parents and carers wherever safe to do so.