The adultification of Black girls
An essay on issues of concern in the UK criminal justice and education systems by Cllr. Abena Akuffo-Kelly.
Abena is a Central Ward Labour Councillor and the CLP Equalities Team lead on BAME and LGBTQ+ issues. She is also currently Chair of the area Independent Police Advisory Group.
When does a child become an adult? In England it’s 18, a transition codified in law. The age of consent is 16. Yet the age of criminal responsibility is 10 years old and the lowest in Europe. This is in contravention of the recommendation of the UN Committee on the Rights of Child (UNCRC) which stipulates the age of criminal responsibility should be no lower than 14 years of age. In addition, the idea that using criminal penalties to punish a child, who cannot understand the wrongfulness of their actions, is without moral justification, known as doli incapax. Doli incapax should be used in conjunction with the age restriction to ensure that no person below that age can be held criminally responsible, unless the prosecution can prove that the child understood the severity of their actions. This matters because UNCRC research demonstrates children below the age of 14 do not have the cognitive capacity to consistently distinguish between right and wrong ‘their frontal cortex is still developing. Therefore, they are unlikely to understand the impact of their actions’.
The current system is not fit for purpose. We have enshrined 18 in law as an age when co-dependency to parents and guardians ceases and children have sufficient maturity to make their own decisions. At 16 they can make choices about their sexual consent and it would be nonsensical to say that a child is sufficiently developed to make decisions about their sexual activity at 10. Yet the law states they have the level of maturity to understand criminality and can therefore be subjected to punitive measures.
Children who are involved in the criminal justice system are often subject to multiple issues of deprivation, mental health, welfare concerns and economic hardship. These children are also more likely to be from ethnic minority backgrounds and to be in care. Their complex needs would be better served by early intervention by social services rather than exacerbating their already present difficulties.
In the case of Black girls, adultification bias coupled with racial stereotyping and misogyny creates a fertile ground for over-policing and increased victimisation.
Adultification bias means that Black children are often not afforded the same protections as other children. Black children are often read as being “streetwise”, resilient and independent. Thus, their vulnerability is erased, the need to safeguard them is diminished and the onus is put on them to save themselves. A 2017 study showed that ‘that adults believe Black girls aged 5-19 need less nurturing, protection, support and comfort than white girls of the same age’ (Georgetown Law, 2017 ).
Adultification also means that the same negative stereotypes that are attributed to Black women are also attributed to Black girls. They are categorised as the angry Black women. They are sexualised and fetishised, perceived to be more mature, experienced and knowledgeable in sexual matters than other girls. This means that there is a lack of compassion for their needs. They are not seen as innocent, nor as victims but complicit and consenting participants in criminal and/ or sexual acts. This therefore qualifies harsh treatment in schools and interrogation and detention by police; rather than empathy, support and safeguarding of their needs.
The now notorious Child Q case illustrates this. This 15 year old girl was strip searched in school with no suitable adult supervision because of alleged possession of cannabis. No cannabis was found. However, irrespective of the supposed crime this was a gross dereliction of duty by both the police in attendance and the school. These are two professions who are tasked with protecting the most vulnerable in society, who failed in their duty of care to a child. The case review concluded that this was unlikely to have happened if this was not a Black child.
What may be read as anxiety, childish behaviour or immaturity in other children is often seen through the dehumanising lens of racism and interpreted as oppositional behaviour, defiance and aggression when exhibited by a Black child. Black children are not allowed the privilege of innocence. Instead of Child Q being given the benefit of the doubt and treated with compassion, she was criminalised. Instead of her teachers remembering their status as being in-loco parentis (in place of her parents) and therefore responsible for her welfare, she was classified as a perpetrator and treated as an adult. But unlike an adult she had limited autonomy, she lacked the maturity to be able to advocate for herself and the agency to say no and refuse to follow the instructions of authority figures who had reneged on their duty to safeguard her welfare. This is the insidious nature of the adultification bias.
Adultification is the dominant driver of the school to prison pipeline. There is a disproportionate exclusion rate for Black children, with some local authorities six times more likely to exclude Black Caribbean children than their white peers. Their subsequent removal to alternative provisions such as PRU’s (Pupil Referral Units) may mean that they are ostracised, separated from their friends, disenfranchised and disaffected: factors that influence children falling into extremism or being susceptible to criminal exploitation. Those seeking to groom children into crime know this and often stand outside PRUs waiting to recruit their students.
Adultification bias means that many Black children experience an accelerated escalation from minor infractions in school to a life of crime and deprivation. Once a child is known to the police and “in the system”, this begins a chain reaction that enhances the likelihood of further contact with the judiciary, leading to criminalisation and stigmatisation. Evidence suggests a better model is to use diversionary strategies and therapeutic support (McAra and McVie, 2007; O’Brien and Fitz-Gibbon, 2017). The rate of reoffending is higher amongst children than in adults – over 40% of those prosecuted reoffend within a year. Prosecution of children does not lead to rehabilitation but deterioration in their life chances and the beginning of a long and possibly lifelong relationship with the justice system. This a catastrophic failure to help some of the most vulnerable in our society.
So, to answer my initial question: when does a child become an adult? The reality is at the age of 10 and for Black children even younger, as early as 5 years old. We must raise the age of criminal responsibility to bring us in line with the evidence and the guidelines set up by UNCRC. Instead of punitive measures against children we should invest in community-based programmes, and early identification and signposting of services for vulnerable children. We should return to the presumption of doli incapax in regards to all children under the age of 18.
We must also be deliberate and explicit in ensuring that Black children are seen and treated as exactly who they are – not adults, but simply children with all the innocence and vulnerability of other children.
 McAra L., McVie S. (2007) ‘Youth Justice?: The Impact of System Contact on Patterns of Desistance from Offending’. European Journal of Criminology. 4(3): 315-345. doi:10.1177/1477370807077186
 O’Brien W, Fitz-Gibbon K. (2017) ‘The Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility in Victoria (Australia): Examining Stakeholders’ Views and the Need for Principled Reform’. Youth Justice. 17(2): 134-152. doi:10.1177/1473225417700325