A new report published on 2 July 2015 has criticised police forces throughout England and Wales for carrying out ineffective investigations into allegations of child abuse and neglect. Over one-third of all investigations were deemed “inadequate”.

Background

In early 2014, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) commenced a national programme of child protection inspections focusing on 8 police forces in England and Wales. Independent reports on each police force were published between August 2014 and February 2015.

The new “thematic” report, entitled “In Harm’s Way: The Role of Police in Keeping Children Safe” draws on the results of these investigations as well as 13 other reports into various elements of child protection.

The Report’s Findings

HMIC inspectors studied 576 cases of child abuse and neglect that had been reported to police forces in Norfolk, South Yorkshire, West Midlands, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, Nottingham, Dyfed-Powys and West Mercia.

Of those 576 cases:

  • 177 were dealt with to a good standard;
  • 179 were deemed “adequate”.
  • 220 were deemed to have received an “inadequate” response.

The HMIC report found that, in most cases, where the initial concern reported to the police was clearly a child protection matter and was allocated to a specialist team, the police response was invariably good.

However, “weaknesses and inconsistencies” were found at all stages of the child protection system, and investigations were sometimes poor and plagued by delay. It was also noted that too little was done to arrest suspects in some cases.

Some police officers even accused children of crimes rather than treating them as potential victims, a trait HMIC described as “surprising”.

Specific Failures

In Harm’s Way contains numerous examples of police failures to investigate or safeguard children, including:

  • An alleged rape of a nine-year-old boy by his grandfather where it took three months before the suspect was interviewed.
  • A man who had been assessed as high-risk was arrested in January 2014 for possessing indecent images of children. His computer was submitted for analysis, during which time he was released on bail. In June 2014, while still on bail (due to the delay in the analysis of the computer), he was arrested for sexually abusing a six-year-old girl who had been playing in the street.
  • Without consulting a medical practitioner, police and social services agreed that the likely cause of vaginal bleeding in a four-year-old was eczema even though the child had made sexual allegations against a family member.

A Change in Culture

In Harm’s Way warns that a change in police culture will be required if forces are to respond adequately to the huge scale of child abuse in society. If they are to improve, the police will need to move away from a target-driven approach, where success is measured by crime figures, to a system that puts child protection at the centre of its work. When it comes to child protection, police forces must move away from being “reactive rather than proactive”.

The National Police Chiefs Council has heeded the findings of the HMIC report and has acknowledged that police forces must “fundamentally change” their approach to child protection to ensure their focus is “on working proactively with other agencies to protect the public from harm.”

The Home Office has promised that police forces will be given the necessary resources to allow them to improve. However, the Government’s recent scrapping of child poverty targets may make the police’s job even more difficult if the suggestion that child abuse and neglect appear to be more common among poorer families is true.

This is a new era in which child abuse has come to the forefront of the public’s conscience. The numerous investigations into child sexual abuse scandals in places like Rotherham and Oxford, and, of course, the revelations of abuse by Jimmy Savile and other high-profile individuals, has given many survivors of child abuse the courage to disclose their own abuse to the police. What we are seeing here is the reality: that while the police play an important role in child protection, they are now overwhelmed by having to deal with the sheer scale of the abuse suffered by children throughout the country. But this is not a reason for survivors who have not disclosed their own abuse not to come forward. We must ensure that children are protected and we must continue to shine a light on child abuse for the sake of past, present and future generations of children