A charity has said an increasing number of children are being criminalised for sexual offences rather than being given specialist help.
Welsh police forces have revealed a 55% increase in the number of children and young people being reported for sexual crimes against other children in the last four years, up from 250 to 388.
But Barnardo’s Cymru say the figures prove increased criminalisation of young people rather than an increase in inappropriate sexual behaviour and that many of the perpetrators are victims of abuse, domestic violence and neglect. It plans to raise the issue with the Welsh Government.
In the Dyfed-Powys Police force area the numbers of children and young people reported for sexual crimes against other children increased steadily from 27 in 2013 to a high of 96 in 2015 and fell to 73 in 2016. The figure stood at 51 in 2014.
The charity believes that Wales has been leading the way in tackling harmful sexual behaviour in children and young people since 2000 when it joined with local authorities and South Wales Police to establish the Taith service to provide assessment and interventions. The model has since had an influence across the UK, Europe, Australia and North America.
Pat Duke, assistant director of BarnardoÕs Cymru, said he believed the latest police figures, obtained by BarnardoÕs under the Freedom of Information Act, show an increase in criminalisation rather than abuse.
"This rise in criminalisation is of huge concern, particularly as across the South Wales local authorities, this pattern is not mirrored in referrals to Taith.Ó
In the last 16 years Taith has received more than 1,500 referrals, more than a third of those young people have been sexually abused themselves, 60% exposed to domestic violence and 50% neglected.
Powys council buys in support from the charity’s Taith service which provides assessment and treatment/intervention with five to 21-year-olds who have sexually harmed others.
TaithÕs multi-agency approach has been adopted as part of the All Wales Child Protection Procedures which recognise that, except where the offence is particularly serious or where the child is in denial, the most appropriate mechanism for managing cases is the child protection system rather than the Criminal Justice System.
Research has proved the effectiveness of specialist help. Over a four year period the reoffending rate of those referred to Taith was just 2%, far lower than other juvenile offending.
Mr Duke said: "It is hugely important to recognise the initial trauma and abuse which has triggered the formation of attitudes and beliefs and personality deficits which inform abuse or harm to others.
"There is an obvious link to childhood experience of abuse and trauma and the Welsh Government has invested in a Barnardo’s/Cardiff University research development project to create models of early intervention on the first signs of problematic sexual behaviour in order to prevent escalation to sexual offending or involvement in child sexual exploitation.
"In many ways, we in Wales have led the way in responding to sexually harmful behaviour among children and young people and these recent figures should cause concern as to the application of the guidance and procedures, we in Wales produced."
Dyfed-Powys Police said it and partner agencies work in accordance with the all Wales child protection procedures to ensure the safety and well being of both children when dealing with any sexual allegation involving a child against another child.
It said each case is dealt with individually but due to the seriousness of the allegation or to protect the public criminal prosecution may sometimes be necessary. It said such decisions are taken with partners and the Crown Prosecution Service.