Britain’s Youngest Mum was 11 years old [content note for child rape]

(originally published at Ending Victimisation and Blame)

Tressa Middleton was only 11 years old the first time she became pregnant. When first reported, in 2006, the media repeatedly made statements about the father being a “neighbourhood boy”. The focus was on the girl; not the boy and not the circumstances in which an 11 year old child could find themselves pregnant. There was very little discussion about the fact that an 11 year old cannot legally consent to sex and that any sexual relationship with a “neighbourhood boy” older than her would have still been classed as a crime. There was very little discussion about why an 11 year old child was “having sex” or drinking alcohol. Instead, media coverage focused on shaming Tressa and her mother.

Many feminist commentators and people involved in child protection clearly knew the story was far more complex. Those directly involved in the case knew it was more complex, yet could not defend Tressa from the media intrusion without putting her further at risk. When Tressa was 14, it was revealed that her older brother Jason, aged 16 at the age of the attack, was the man who raped her. Jason Middleton was sentenced to 4 years in prison in 2009 and has since been released home to live with his mother.

Tressa, a child victim of rape, became pregnant. She also became addicted to alcohol and was eventually placed in a residential unit without her child and placed in a position where she had no choice but to sign adoption papers.

The original coverage of Tressa’s pregnancy was simply victim blaming. It was horrific shaming of a child victim of rape with no attempt to contextualise Tressa’s abuse. The case has once again gained media coverage due to Tressa’s new pregnancy with the Daily Mail publishing an article conveniently ignoring their original victim-blaming. The refusal to acknowledge their own responsibility in perpetuating the harm to Tressa by publishing salacious articles is important to note but equally so is the failure to place Tressa’s experience within a paradigm of male violence and our culture’s refusal to accept responsibility for not supporting Tressa.

Tressa was a child who was raped. Instead of discussing her experience as rape, which it clearly was under law as 11 year olds cannot consent, the media blamed Tressa repeatedly. Whilst I cannot comment on the specifics of the investigation into Tressa’s rape since that is not a matter of public record, I do want to make it clear that child rape is frequently not investigated properly. We simply do not know if the authorities involved in Tressa’s care realised they were dealing with a child victim of rape. The media certainly didn’t think so. If the authorities did realise it was child rape, did they ever investigate the brother as a possible perpetrator? Again, we cannot know that. All that we do know is that an 11 year old rape victim was forced to live with her rapist despite becoming pregnant (and the rape becoming known to the authorities). The reality is that most rape victims are raped by someone known to them yet we don’t publicly acknowledge the reality of rape by fathers and brothers. We talk about stepfathers and uncles but very rarely fathers and brothers despite this not being uncommon.

What the Daily Mail has also failed to make explicit is that Tressa’s daughter was placed for adoption because of the lack of specialist services for teenage mothers and for mothers with substance misuse problems. They failed to acknowledge the lack of adequate support for victims of child rape; for a child with a clear case of trauma. They didn’t investigate the poor provision for teenage mothers. They didn’t acknowledge how traumatic it would be for a young mother to be forced to live with her rapist; to have no safe space. Or, how traumatic it would be for a child to have her own child forcibly removed from her care simply due to the lack of resources to support both.

Tressa Middleton has had very little choice in having her story become public knowledge. We are doing her a tremendous disservice by focusing on her pregnancies without acknowledging that she was originally blamed for being a victim of child rape; that she has been publicly shamed and humiliated.

Tressa’s case is not an isolated one. We do not have exact figures for children who are raped within their own home by male relatives. We do not have accurate figures for children who become pregnant after being raped. We do know that it is not uncommon. We need to reflect on the treatment Tressa received and look into implementing victim-centred support so that no other child is forced to experience what Tressa did.

There are two separate required responses to this case:

1. The lack of services for victims

  • specialist rape support for children
  • better mandatory training for GPs, health workers, social workers, teachers, police and any other front line staff working with children to recognise the signs of child sexual abuse
  • residential units to support all mothers who are recovering from trauma and/ or substance misuse where the babies can live with their mothers
  • foster care for teenage mothers where the babies can remain in the primary care of the mother

2. Enforceable legislation guiding the publication of stories of male violence against women and girls. Guidelines already exist but they are not strong enough and the media ignores them.

We are complicit in continuing the abuse of Tressa by irresponsible reporting and denying services to victims.

We need to do better.