For my 17th birthday, my boyfriend gave me a single by punk band the Lurkers. My suspicion then (and now), was that he’d bought it for himself; had belatedly realised he couldn’t pitch up empty-handed on his (still relatively new) girlfriend’s birthday, and so gave it to me instead. It was still in the bag. I don’t remember if there was a card.
My 17th was also the day I had my provisional driving licence. That morning, I went with my mum in her red Opel Kadett to a quiet bit of road near the river to have my first go at driving. After several minutes of kangaroo starts, stalling, and yelling at each other, we gave up, and my mum drove us home again. (In fact, it was said boyfriend, who deserves much of the credit for teaching me to drive.)
Seventeen is a strange age. Still at school, but very much focused on life beyond school. On the brink of adulthood, but reminded daily you are not quite there yet. Able to take on the huge responsibility of driving a car, but not trusted to vote.
It can be an equally strange time for parents. Your child still lives at home, but probably spends less and less time there. They remain financially dependent on you (through no fault of their own), but are becoming increasingly independent from you in other ways. They may be taller and more streetwise than you, but remain your legal responsibility.
Recent social and educational changes have reinforced the message that 17 year olds are more child than adult. Not just the raising of the school leaving age (many of my friends left school and started their first job at 16), but also the advent of AS levels. The introduction of these exams, taken at 17, will only have encouraged parents (and schools) to grant children this age less autonomy than they otherwise might. Gone are the days when the first year of sixth form didn’t really count for much, so the lower sixth passed largely under the school radar. Now, the academic performance of 17 year olds is treated as a matter of great import, requiring intense oversight by parents and teachers, alike.
Whereas we’d been getting served in pubs from about 14, the age limit in pubs is now much more strictly enforced, which also makes the divide between 17 and 18 more significant. A friend’s daughter, the oldest in her year, bemoaned the fact that she couldn’t go clubbing to celebrate her 18th, because none of her friends were yet old enough to get in. (An offer from her dad to accompany her, was met with the disdain it deserved.) There was none of this ‘Challenge 25’ malarkey in my day; more of a ‘Don’t ask; don’t tell,’ approach by publicans. (There were no alcopops, either, and as no one could afford more than about one bottle of pilsner lager all evening, no great harm was done.)
No one quite knows what to make of 17 year olds: they’re neither fish nor fowl; not fitting easily into either camp.
When Socialist Worker wrote gleefully recently about the terrible death of Horatio Chapple (‘Eton by bear? The inquest begins’), it provoked outrage. How could anyone find the violent and terrifying death of a schoolchild an occasion for mirth and bad puns? I suspect it was the fact Horatio was 17, which made him fair game for this kind of (ironically) juvenile bile. If it had been an equally posh 16 year old who had been killed by that polar bear, I imagine decency might have prevailed, even among armchair class warriors.
While some confusion over the adult/child status of 17 year olds may be understandable (necessary, even, for the parents and teens, themselves), it seems less understandable for the law to share that ambivalence. If the law in question relates to the way 17 year olds are treated in that most adult of environments, the police station, it seems entirely inexcusable.
Yet legal confusion and inconsistency over the status of 17 year olds in the police station remains – and has now been linked to three deaths in three years.
Legal confusion remains despite a successful high court challenge (HC v Home Secretary) brought last year by the charity Just for Kids Law. It remains despite the judge saying the case showed just how vulnerable arrested 17 year olds can be, and how much in need of adult support.
It remains despite the subsequent assurances given by Home Secretary Theresa May that she would review all the legal loopholes which allow 17 year olds to be treated as adults in the police station. It remains despite the UK’s very clear obligations under the United Nations Convention on the rights of the Child, to treat all under 18s as children.
Most damning of all, it remains, despite the third suicide of a 17 year old, who had not received all the protections that would have been given to an arrested 16 year old.
The deaths of these three 17 year olds were unrelated, but the families of Kesia Leatherbarrow (6 March 1996-3 December 2013); Joe Lawton (9 January 1995-11 August 2012) and Eddie Thornber (17 December 1993-14 September 2011), all believe that if their children had been given appropriate support after arrest, they would not have died.
It is to Theresa May’s great shame that she opposed the legal action last April, arguing for the status quo. It is to her shame that she did this, despite knowing that Eddie and Joe’s deaths had been linked to the loophole which meant their parents weren’t informed of their arrests. It is equally to her shame that, after losing the case, she paid only lip service to the judge’s ruling, making limited changes, and leaving the anomaly which allowed Kesia to be held for two nights and three days in the police station. If Kesia had been 16, rather than spending the whole weekend in a police cell, she could have been moved to local authority care, where trained staff would have been available to look after her welfare.
May’s stance towards 17 year olds is in stark contrast to that of her counterpart at the Ministry of Justice, who seems clear that they are still only children. Justice Secretary Chris Grayling recently announced that 15-17 year olds in young offender institutions will have to be tucked up in bed with the lights out by 10.30pm, or face punishment..
Yet, as the new policing minister Michael Penning recently confirmed, the government doesn’t even bother to collect centralised figures on the number of 17 year olds who are arrested, and so may be at risk. Infantalising 17 year olds is fine, it seems, if it’s punitive, but not if it’s in the interest of protecting their welfare
Eddie was a former head boy and keen sportsman; Joe was bright and ambitious; Kesia was a troubled soul, with a history of depression and self harm. What their tragic deaths show is that all arrested 17 year olds, regardless of their situation or previous mental state, need proper protections. Thrust into the alien, isolating environment of a police station, even the most confident among them is likely to be vulnerable, in a way that someone even just a little older, with more experience of life beyond home and school, may not be.
The three bereaved families recently wrote jointly to Theresa May, calling on her to act. ‘We do not want to meet another family whose lives have been devastated by the failure in the law to comply with its duties to children. None of us wants to see another family suffer as we are.’
Nothing will ever take away these parents’ suffering over the loss of their beloved children, but if the Home Secretary were to heed their call for change, it really would be music to their ears.
Fiona is working with Just for Kids Law on its #stillachildat17 campaign, to force the Home Secretary to close all the remaining legal loopholes, which allow 17 year olds to be treated as adults in the police station.