Police failings risk ‘another Rotherham’ in relation to CSE

The chief of Ofsted has slammed some police authorities for failing to take their child protection duties seriously.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, chief inspector of Ofsted, has written to his counterpart in the HMI Constabulary raising serious concerns about some police forces approach to child protection and safeguarding children.

Unless some police forces began to take their child protection duties more seriously, there could be a repeat of the failings that occurred in Rotherham and elsewhere a few years ago.

“In the past year, more than half of Ofsted’s 42 inspections of local authority children’s services identified serious weaknesses in the contribution made by the police to safeguarding children,” Wilshaw wrote in the letter to the chief inspector of Constabulary Sir Thomas Winsor.

In the local authorities inspected last year, inspectors found evidence of cases where police forces were not:

  • sharing information about domestic abuse cases in a timely way
  • notifying social workers quickly enough when children went missing
  • attending important child protection conferences
  • carrying out joint child protection visits with social workers
  • tackling Disclosure and Barring Service backlogs.

Police did not respond quickly to children missing from care

Police failing to share information in a timely fashion was a recurring theme in many of Ofsted’s reports, particularly in relation to domestic abuse. In Bury, notifications of domestic abuse were being sent to the local authority in batches as opposed to individually as soon as each incident arose, leaving children without help.

In Medway, police had not shared notifications until some weeks after individual incidents were reported, while in the Wirral, inspectors found referrals could take up to four weeks. The slow pace of referrals in Slough was also highlighted.

“In each of these areas, the level of risk faced by the children concerned was not being identified swiftly or effectively. As a result, inspectors could not be sure that children were receiving the help and protection they needed and deserved,” said Wilshaw.

Children going missing from local authority care was also highlighted by Sir Michael in his letter to Winsor as Ofsted inspectors found instances when the police did not respond quickly enough to incidents of children going missing.

An inspection of Bromley found that delays by police officers in notifying social workers of children going missing from care meant it was unclear whether the children concerned had returned home safely or had still to be traced.

Social workers were forced to carry out visits alone

Statutory guidance requires police to attend child protection conferences. However, inspectors came across cases where the local authority had to take decisions about children and their families without access to vital information from the police. Wilshaw highlighted that this was evident in Bury, Peterborough, West Sussex - and in Dorset where in over a third of child protection conferences the police were not in attendance.

Police officer in some forces were also failing to work collaboratively with social workers on the frontline. Joint interviews to establish evidence were not happening soon enough in Doncaster, inspectors found, while in Southend, specialist officers were not available to carry out joint visits.

“This meant that social workers had to carry out potentially dangerous child protection visits on their own. As a result, they were unable to immediately remove children from danger as it is only the police who have the necessary powers,” said Wilshaw.

In other areas, such as Torbay, the police did not communicate with social workers before taking action, including instances where children were taken into police protection without any discussion about alternative options.

Delays by the police in vetting people to work with children was another common problem. In Wandsworth, a backlog led to 23 approved in-house carers being unavailable to support vulnerable families. Inspectors also found a failure by police to complete DBS checks promptly in Dorset which led to delays in clearing potential adopters meaning children were having to wait before they could settle with a family.

“Dangerous gulf” between stated priorities and practice

Sir Michael reserved his harshest criticism for Cleveland police saying his greatest concerns were in this area. While the inspection of Stockton-on-Tees found the overall quality of provision by the local authority to be good, the lack of support from Cleveland Police meant that the Safeguarding Board was judged to require improvement.

Inspectors found:

  • Police officers were often unavailable to attend strategy discussions when a child might have been at risk of significant harm.
  • Officers did send written information to support discussions, but social workers had to interpret this themselves.
  • As a result of the lack of police attendance, these sessions lacked the evidence needed to agree formal intervention measures as outlined in DfE guidance.
  • Police officers had been instructed not to attend initial child protection conferences in respect of unborn babies.
  • In one case, the police decided to close an investigation even though there was clear evidence that the children concerned had suffered non-accidental injuries. It was only after the local authority intervened that the case was re-opened and investigated further.

“Overall, inspectors found an unacceptable and potentially dangerous gulf between the stated priorities of Cleveland Police in relation to its support for child protection and the practice observed in the course of the inspection of the local authority’s children’s services,” said Wilshaw.

However, he stated that while there had been a steady improvement across the country in tackling CSE, the problems highlighted were not confined to Cleveland.

Repeat of Rotherham

In areas where police are taking child protection work seriously, inspectors found senior officers playing a leading role in LSCBs (Local Safeguarding Children Boards) and making sure decisions are carried through to the front line. Expert police resource is being made available to quickly locate missing children, undertake proactive work to divert offenders, identify high-risk CSE areas and carry out effective risk assessments in cases of domestic abuse. Yet there is mounting evidence that this is not happening in a number of police forces, said Wilshaw.

Wilshaw said that he appreciated that police forces are facing many competing pressures and demands on their limited resources that in the current climate. But he warned that if Chief Constables fail to give this issue sufficient priority, there could be a repeat of the sort of “catastrophic failings” witnessed in places like Rotherham, Oxford and elsewhere a few years ago.

“I would like to be reassured that every Chief Constable recognises the vital role that the police have to play in protecting our most vulnerable children from harm. They are the ones armed with the intelligence to identify where organised abuse may be taking place and to spot emerging patterns of criminal activity,” said Sir Michael.

He concluded by urging Sir Thomas Winsor to use the contents of the letter when planning the next programme of safeguarding inspections.

Increased investment

Temporary Deputy Chief Constable at Cleveland Police Simon Nickless responded to the letter stating that: “Cleveland Police takes safeguarding extremely seriously and works closely with all local authorities and other safeguarding agencies on a daily basis to protect children from harm.”

During the past year, there had been “significantly increased investment in protecting vulnerable people” with additional officers recruited to the Child Abuse Investigation Team, the Sex Offender Management Unit and the Paedophile Online Investigation Team, as well as the formation of a new team of officers who work closely with the safeguarding partners to tackle missing children, child sexual exploitation and trafficking, he added.

Nickless added that the force co-operated fully with Ofsted inspectors at the time of the inspection of Stockton Council to explain their approach to attendance at strategy meetings and measures were already in place to deliver improvement.

He highlighted that there is no suggestion in the narrative of the Ofsted report, or the recommendations, that the reason the Stockton Local Safeguarding Children’s Board was judged to require improvement was due to a lack of support from Cleveland Police.

Sir Thomas Winsor also responded to Wilshaw’s letter highlighting the work that HMIC has produced relating to child protection including five reports, 12 recent inspections of child protection in individual forces and nine follow up inspections if child protection in failing forces.

“As you therefore appreciate, we have completed and continue to be engaged in a very substantial body of work in connection with how the police and other agencies deal with child abuse,” said Sir Thomas. “You will of course recognise that many of the problems to which you refer are also concerns of local authorities and other statutory agencies.”

“We will persist in ensuring that the police understand their very high public duty most efficiently and effectively to use their powers, and discharge their responsibilities, in connection with the protection of children,” he concluded.

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