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Thames Valley Police strip-searched 181 children since 2018

PIC: David Jones / PA

A report has found nearly 3,000 searches of minors have taken place across England and Wales in four years.

Black children were up to six times more likely to be strip-searched by police across England and Wales and more than half of the strip-searches took place without an appropriate adult present.

Locations for searches included police vehicles and schools, with a small number even taking place in takeaways and amusement parks, the research by the Children’s Commissioner revealed.

Dame Rachel de Souza said the findings demonstrated “evidence of deeply concerning practice” with “widespread non-compliance” with statutory safeguards, and added that children are “being failed by those whose job it is to protect them”.

Locally, the report shows that 181 child strip-searches took place in the Thames Valley between 2018 and 2022, that's 6% of all searches during that time.

The force says it is 'looking closely at the findings and recommendations' made in the report, which it described as 'vital.'

Thames Valley Police Assistant Chief Constable for Crime and Justice, Dennis Murray, said: "It is vital that we as police Forces act with legitimacy and are trusted by the public.

"The report by the Children's Commissioner is a vital one and we will be looking closely at the findings and recommendations to make sure that any interaction we have with a child is held to a higher scrutiny and that we are protecting children rather than harming them. 

"In light of the incident involving Child Q, we as a Force conducted a full review to make sure our practices were correct, and we have made changes as recommendations have been made nationally. 

"We will again review our practices in light of the recommendations within the Commissioners report and make changes where they are needed.   

"Our use of police powers across the board is being scrutinised by Independent Advisory Groups, and our Independent Scrutiny and Oversight Board, led by a leading Barrister, has been set up to give a voice to ethnic minorities and to make sure any use of our powers is not driven by discrimination.

"We will treat children with respect, dignity and work to protect them."

The Children’s Commissioner ordered the report after the Child Q scandal which came to light last March.

The 15-year-old black schoolgirl was strip-searched by police while on her period after being wrongly suspected of carrying cannabis at school.

Scotland Yard apologised and said the strip-search at the girl’s school in 2020 without another adult present “should never have happened”.

After that scandal Dame Rachel requested figures for strip-searches by the Metropolitan Police force which, when reported last August, showed more than 600 children underwent “intrusive and traumatising” searches over a two-year period, with black boys disproportionately targeted.

The latest report, showing data for forces across England and Wales, revealed a total of 2,847 strip-searches took place between 2018 and mid-2022 of children aged between eight and 17.

The vast majority of children strip-searched were boys (95%) while 5% of such searches were carried out on girls.

About 38% of children strip-searched were black and the report found black children were up to six times more likely to be strip-searched when compared with national population figures, while white children were around half as likely to be searched.

The report described this as a “pronounced and deeply concerning ethnic disproportionality” and Dame Rachel branded it “utterly unacceptable”.

The commissioner said she has “serious concerns about the poor quality of record-keeping, which makes transparency and scrutiny very difficult, and means that the numbers in this report may only be a minimum”.

More than half (52%) of strip-searches were conducted without an appropriate adult confirmed to be present.

The presence of an appropriate adult is required by law, except in cases of “urgency”, and is usually a parent or guardian but can also be a social worker, carer or volunteer.

Among her recommendations Dame Rachel is calling for “urgency” to be removed as an exception and said constant supervision should be recommended.

Dame Rachel said while she accepted that strip-searching children can be necessary in limited situations, it is an “intrusive and potentially traumatic power” which must be subject to “robust safeguards”.

She said: “The additional complexity of conducting these searches during a stop and search should mean that there is a higher degree of scrutiny than if conducted in custody, not less.”

Among her 17 recommendations, Dame Rachel called on the the Home Office to carry out a comprehensive review of the legislative and policy framework for child strip-searches and make specific changes to the Police and Criminal Evidence (Pace) Codes.

Among these, and regarding the requirement for an appropriate adult to be present for strip-searches of children in custody and under stop and search powers, she said it must only be “the most exceptional situations where there is serious risk to the child’s life or welfare” where this is not the case.

She said schools should be excluded as an appropriate location for a strip-search and that they should only be conducted at a nearby police station, medical premises or home address.

Dame Rachel said the Home Office should require forces to report annually on the strip-searching of children, including recording ethnicity, whether an appropriate adult was present, the specific location and whether a safeguarding referral was made.

She said the National Police Chiefs’ Council should also publish an action plan on reforming stop and search practices, including strip-searches of children.

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