Ahmed has a recurring nightmare. The specifics change, but the script stays the same: he is in terrible danger, he tries to call the police, but no one responds. He is alone. In the latest version, bullets were shot through his window, but the line was dead when he picked up a phone to call the police.
It is not hard to see why Ahmed (not his real name) can’t shake such dreams. When he was 12, he was sitting in class when he was called into the headteacher’s office. Two police officers were waiting for him, with his headteacher. They told him a man had handed himself into the police for the rape of a minor he had met on a dating app and that the number he had given for the child matched Ahmed’s. Ahmed says he asked for his parents to be called, so they could be with him during his questioning, but he was ignored.
In the headteacher’s office, Ahmed felt scared and alone. He says he was forced to hand over his phone, with a police officer telling him: “You have no choice.” Despite being a child rape victim, he says he was made to feel like a criminal.
The police officer then went through messages on WhatsApp, Ahmed says, in front of his headteacher. It made him feel sick and uncomfortable that they could have seen intimate photos of him. When he asked again for his mum, he alleges the police officer stared at him, emotionless, and said: “We’ll just stay here all night until you confess.” Ahmed started crying. The interrogation began in the morning, but his mother wasn’t called by a member of the school staff until 5pm.
Now 18, Ahmed is speaking about his ordeal for the first time. He does so in the middle of a political storm over the treatment of black children within statutory services in the UK. After a number of startling cases – such as Child Q, in which a 15-year-old was strip-searched at school – experts and campaigners have been raising the alarm about adultification bias, a description of the preconceptions that can lead black children to be treated as older, and less vulnerable, than they are.
“When I read back the report they wrote about me when I was a child, I didn’t even know the words they used about me, like manipulative,” Ahmed says. “Now, I think: ‘How could they speak like that about a child?’ I was treated as an adult.”
“What makes it worse is that the headteacher didn’t intervene. Now I look back and it’s so shocking that he left me in a room with those officers and I was crying. I don’t even remember him checking to see if I was OK. He didn’t call my family and he didn’t seem to care.”
A few days after the incident at school, one of the officers turned up at Ahmed’s house. He showed Ahmed’s parents and brother messages between Ahmed and the perpetrator, including a graphic picture or video of Ahmed naked.
In the police statement written up later, the officer said he did so to show the family Ahmed’s “outrageous behaviour”. In a complaint sent to the Metropolitan police, Ahmed’s legal representative noted “considerable concern” that the police officer would characterise a victim of a serious sexual offence in that manner.
Despite Ahmed being a child, the Crown Prosecution Service insisted it needed to trawl through 40,000 files of his personal data. It was nearly a year and a half before the perpetrator was charged and pleaded guilty to three counts of rape, one of attempted rape, one of inciting sexual activity with penetration and one of sexual touching. Ahmed was later diagnosed with PTSD.
Rachel Harger, a solicitor at Bindmans, who represented Ahmed, is clear: “Metropolitan police officers failed to properly recognise and treat Ahmed as a child from the moment they made initial contact with him.” This, she says, can be seen in their “blatant disregard of Ahmed’s rights as a child” during the initial meetings and their failure to properly support him.
The Met initially rejected a complaint about how Ahmed was treated, before accepting it in full on appeal. Notably, the investigating officer agreed that Ahmed was discriminated against on the basis of his age and that the police’s actions contributed to his PTSD.
But Harger doesn’t think this failure to treat her client as a child is an isolated incident. “It is systemic across public bodies,” she says. “There is seemingly a total failure by the state, sometimes a total resistance by authorities like the Home Office and local councils, to properly recognise racialised children [those from ethnic minority backgrounds] as children and in turn afford them the proper protection and safeguarding that these children are entitled to.”
The term adultification bias originated in the US in about 2008, but its usage has grown in the UK in recent months. The researcher and safeguarding expert Jahnine Davis says it can mean that children of colour are not seen as “innocent”, as white children would be. It is a form of racism that has a disproportionate impact on black children, she says: “They’re seen as being more responsible and more resilient and therefore sometimes able to safeguard themselves.”
Davis, the director and co-founder of Listen Up, the UK’s leading organisation dedicated to tackling this phenomenon in child safeguarding practices, adds that adultification is not simply about regarding black children as being more mature than other children. “It feeds into various different racialised stereotypes, in particular about black children being aggressive, angry, more deviant.” These are stereotypes of black children and adults that stem from slavery and colonialism, she says.
As part of her research, Davis has explored why sexual abuse of black girls is frequently missed. Through interviews, she found that black girls are often not seen as children, but rather as “hypersexual beings”. Black girls are perceived as being more responsible for their actions, more emotionally strong and more knowledgable about sex. The UK feminist organisation Our Streets Now, which campaigns against street harassment, says that, as a result, black girls are harassed at a younger age, while women of colour experience more targeted and damaging types of harassment.
In 2020, Davis co-published a paper on the impact of adultification on black boys who had been criminally exploited. It was written in response to the murder of Jaden Moodie, a 14-year-old boy who was killed on the street in London in 2019. At the time of his death, Moodie had been sleeping on his grandmother’s sofa; he had been in education for only three of the past 22 months.
At 13, the police had found him in possession of an air gun and a large, Rambo-style knife. But the children’s services had decided to take no action outside the response of the Youth Offending Service. How, the paper asked, could the case of a vulnerable child with weapons be seen as “not one of welfare, but one of youth justice”?
When the Child Q scandal had exploded earlier that year, Davis had again called for children to be treated equally. The case concerned a teenage girl who had been strip-searched at school in east London by Met officers after wrongly being suspected of carrying cannabis. The incident provoked days of protest after it emerged that Child Q was searched without an adult other than the officers present, while she was on her period and without her parents being contacted.
The Met said the actions of its officers were “regrettable” and “should never have happened”. The school said that, while it was “not aware that a strip-search was taking place, we wholly accept that the child should not have been left in the situation that she was”.
For Adrian Rollins, a deputy headteacher in Nottingham, the case raises questions about protocol. At a bare minimum, if a child is involved, a member of the school staff should be involved, he says. Before a search goes ahead, a parent must be informed. He describes what occurred in the Child Q case as gross misconduct and a clear sign of negligence. “Why would the school allow that, irrespective of any child?” he says. “The trauma that will cause a child could be lifelong.”
Mumtaz Musa, a 20-year-old student, attended one of the Child Q protests. She says she was shocked when she read about the case on social media. “Even now, I don’t have the words to convey how angry, disgusted and sad I am. If this is how I’m feeling, what is Child Q feeling like?”
She had not come across the word adultification until then, but says she felt its pernicious impact as a schoolchild. She was excluded often when she was at school, as well as being sent to isolation or detention. “I went through all of my schooling without being diagnosed with ADHD; no one picked up on it. All my teachers just assumed I was being defiant and my impulsive outbursts were seen as me being rude. They associated my behaviour as a child with words you would use to describe an adult – they saw me as calculating and disrespectful, not just a young child struggling. They never gave me any grace as a child,” she said.
Sara Bafo, a recent graduate who also attended a protest, thinks the Child Q case was not an isolated incident. She believes that what happened to Child Q lies at the intersection of racism and sexism known as misogynoir. These two prejudices compound each other and result in, Bafo believes, black girls being sexualised at a very young age; it portrays them as angry and deviant and robs them of their innocence. This reinforces the harmful stereotypes that black girls can handle abuse and even invite it.
She recalls being searched in school – and the way she was treated when she objected. “I remember being in class and we had to, once again, go through the process of being searched. This one white teacher decided to search my bra and, for the first time, I refused. I stood up for myself because I knew the people who had authority would not. After I refused, I had to spend a whole week in isolation – because I asked a teacher not to search my breast because I felt uncomfortable.”
A month after the story of Child Q broke, adultification was blamed in another case. This time, an eight-year-old black boy was forced to clean his five-year-old sister after she soiled herself at an after-school club in north London. The boy said he was forced to do it in front of other people, despite toilet facilities being located nearby.
Such scandals may be shocking to black people, but they are not surprising. “When something like this happens, it ultimately brings back memories to people of when they were disproportionately treated like criminals before anything else by the authorities,” Rollins says. “Would it have happened if it was a blond-haired, blue-eyed English student? Who knows? The bottom line is it wasn’t.”
Aika Stephenson, the legal director of Just for Kids Law, a children’s rights organisation that is supporting Child Q and her family, agrees. “Day in, day out, you see the adultification of black boys playing out in the approach that’s taken by police. It is about not seeing them as children, it’s about the way that they’re seen as a threat. Would you speak to a 16-year-old white child in that way? Would you immediately ramp up?”
Children internalise the adultification they experience, she says. “If everyone treats you as if you’re older, then children start to believe that they have to function at that level.”
Ahmed’s treatment has had a devastating impact on his life. He has been traumatised by his experiences with the police and his school, he says. His attendance dropped dramatically and he did worse in his GCSEs than he had hoped. He ended up moving schools, which helped. “When I was there, memories of what had happened come flooding back. Whereas at the new school, there was no association with anything like that,” he says.
He believes he would have been treated differently had he been white. “Firstly, if I was white, chances are my parents would have spoken English – they would have called them. I believe they would have cared more about me and my welfare. I believe they would have made sure I was OK,” he says.
Ahmed has been watching the reports on the Child Q case with interest. “I thought, when I experienced this, this must be the worst thing that could possibly happen. When I read about Child Q, I saw it could get so much worse.”
He believes things like this will keep happening to black children unless there is a systematic review of policing practices. He wants police officers to be removed from schools.
A spokesperson for the Met said: “On this occasion, it’s clear some aspects of our contact with the victim fell below the standards we expect. While no evidence was found to suggest anyone involved in the investigation had a case to answer for misconduct, concerns were raised about the actions of one officer who took a statement from the victim in the early stage of the inquiry. This was addressed directly with the officer involved through additional training and extra supervision.” The spokesperson added that officers across the Met are to receive training to address the adultification of children.
For Davies, any solution begins with the serious acknowledgment that racism exists. “As a society, we need to really love black children more than we do. And I mean love and care for them so that, when we see them, we question: if that’s not good enough for my child, why is it good enough for anyone else’s?”