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Police must reassess their approach to child protection

HMIC warns of risk of failing a new generation of children

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary has said that in a time of changing communities – both real and virtual – the police service must reassess their approach to child protection, or risk failing another generation. HMIC emphasises that protection of children is one of the most serious and important responsibilities entrusted to the police service.

HMIC has published a series of three reports related to child protection over the last 18 months:

HMI Dru Sharpling, who led the inspections, said:

"Children must come first – there can be no compromise when it comes to child protection. Getting it right most of the time can never be the explanation for failures that have devastating consequences for the child, carers and families.

"Dealing with child protection cases can be enormously challenging and complex. There is no question of this, nor that there are officers out there who are dedicated and passionate in protecting children and bringing perpetrators of abuse to justice.

"HMIC found that where cases of child abuse and neglect are straightforward, they are almost always dealt with promptly and efficiently. But often these cases are complicated and unique, so the processes for dealing with them have to adapt. This requires training officers and equipping them with a different set of skills than is required for other types of police investigation.

"In other areas of child protection, officers must have the confidence and the support they need to apply tried-and-tested investigative techniques, regardless of the fact that the offending is now taking place in the online space.

"The abuse and neglect of children is not new, but the scale of current and non-recent sexual abuse revealed by recent investigations has shocked the nation. Although the police don't deal with these issues in isolation, they need to lead the way in tackling this societal scourge and prioritise work, not according to workload, but with the welfare of the child as the priority. Future generations will judge us according to the action we take now."

Although all forces have strategies and policies in place that are designed to ensure children are effectively protected and safeguarded (i.e. protected from further harm), and senior leaders are clear in the priority they place on this area of policing, HMIC's inspections found that the plans articulated by senior officers have failed as yet to result in consistently good services for children.

On too many occasions HMIC found that investigations into child abuse or neglect were poor and plagued by delay, and the response to reports of offences against children – ranging from online grooming to domestic abuse – was inadequate.

HMIC concluded that pockets of excellent practice observed across all inspections were the result of dedicated and professional individuals and teams, rather than a united, understood and applied focus on protecting children at force level. Additionally, there is not enough done in forces to find out the effects on children of police intervention, nor to understand their experiences when they come into contact with the police. This means that forces do not know what works in protecting children or how successful or positive their impact is on children.

The increasing numbers of cases involving child protection means that the police will have to adapt to a substantial new challenge, with new ways of working. The old methods of policing, which relied on a target driven approach where what mattered was what was counted – an approach which still permeates policing today – must be driven from the policing culture once and for all. Children must be placed at the heart of what policing does next.

The dedicated and extremely motivated individuals and teams HMIC says it encountered in its inspection work also need and deserve better support – particularly as they deal sometimes on a daily basis with details and circumstances which can be distressing and horrifying. Senior officers must ensure they are working in an environment in which they are valued and supported when carrying out protection and safeguarding activity, which might be invisible to the public, but which they are doing on behalf of children, and of the community at large.

The reports say that the police service must focus immediately on how it ensures it has the skills, capabilities and application it needs to improve. The number of cases of child abuse reported is increasing, and the opportunities the internet provides for abuse are now manifest. Dealing effectively with the wide range of circumstances where children may need help – from online abuse to neglect, and physical beatings to sexual exploitation – requires a correspondingly comprehensive set of skills.

Some of these skills, says HMIC, are clearly specialist (for instance, eliciting an account of abuse from a traumatised child, or maintaining good quality information and intelligence records at local and national levels); others are simply reapplying basic investigative techniques to a new environment. For example, although the police are confident in dealing with an identifiable and physical scene of crime, such as a burglary, they generally do not investigate cases in the virtual world as effectively – even though the basic principles of taking a snapshot of the scene of the crime, and considering who might be at risk, and so on, are the same.

Overall, the findings from HMIC's child protection inspections demonstrate an under-recognition and under-estimation of risk. The reports warn that if the child protection system is in some cases struggling to manage the current demands made of it, it will not cope with a greater number of cases which are likely to be uncovered in the future.