| ‘Officers did not always recognise that children who regularly go missing from |
home may be at risk of being groomed for sexual abuse,’
the HMIC report said. Photograph: Alamy
Devon and Cornwall police have been strongly criticised and ordered to make immediate improvements after a watchdog found the force had an inconsistent response to child sexual exploitation.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) said Devon and Cornwall police officers had demonstrated a lack of understanding about the extent of the issue.
HMIC flagged up problems with the way the force dealt with children who often go missing. It said that though the force was good at finding the children, measures to stop them vanishing again were often ineffective.
In nine of the 10 cases examined by inspectors in which children had gone missing there were signs that those involved could be at risk of sexual exploitation.
The report said: “Officers did not always recognise that children who regularly go missing from home may be at risk of being groomed for sexual abuse.”
It said that in some serious cases that were allocated to non-specialist teams, inquiries and investigations were undertaken by insufficiently skilled and knowledgeable staff. Not all had a thorough awareness of how to identify children at risk, the report said.
In one example, the case of a 13-year-old girl who sent more than 30 explicit images to an older man over the internet was closed without a suspect being identified or a referral to child social care services.
Another case involved the alleged sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl by her friend’s father. While she was spoken to within two weeks, the suspect had not been arrested six months later and officers did not consider the wider risk he could pose.
The inspectors also looked at the case of a 15-year-old girl identified as being at risk of sexual exploitation. Officers noted concerns on police records that she had met an older man for sex in return for drugs and money. While risk strategy meetings had taken place, inspectors found no evidence of a longer-term safeguarding plan to protect the girl from further exploitation. At the time of the inspection, the girl had not been spoken to by police.
Another worrying case was that of a 13-year-old girl who was found sleeping rough with an 18-year-old man in Torquay. She was using “legal highs” supplied by the man and her behaviour was increasingly erratic. Although consideration was given to serving the man with a child abduction warning notice should he be found with the girl again, there was no record that this had taken place.
No consideration was given to charging the man with criminal offences because the victim did not want to make a complaint. A strategy meeting was held at which the risk of the girl being sexually exploited was acknowledged but was described by someone – though not a police representative – in the minutes of the meeting as a “choice”.
There were also delays in the examination and analysis of computers and other media undertaken by the hi-tech crime unit. For example, the tablet computers of two 10-year-old girls who were sent explicit images by a man in January 2015 awaited examination at the time of the inspection in May 2015.
HM Inspector of Constabulary Wendy Williams said: “Devon and Cornwall police demonstrated a strong commitment to improving services for the protection of vulnerable people. However, while we found a number of examples of good work to protect children, this commitment has not yet resulted in consistently improved outcomes for children.
“We were concerned to find that in a significant number of cases we looked at, poor supervision and record keeping had undermined decision-making and safeguarding measures. Some serious cases were investigated by non-specialist officers, resulting in delays, and potential risks posed by alleged offenders not being considered.
“The force must also improve how it tackles child sexual exploitation. While the force is taking some steps to address this, it still has much more to do to demonstrate that it is able to effectively identify and safeguard children at risk.
“The response to children who regularly go missing from home also requires improvement, with a particular focus on early intervention and ensuring that officers and staff understand the link between children who regularly go missing and the risk of sexual exploitation.”
Devon and Cornwall police has six weeks to respond with an action plan, HMIC said.
Det Supt Paul Northcott, head of Devon and Cornwall’s public protection unit, said it was developing a fresh approach to the way it assessed risk and was providing staff with extra training.
“We recognise that we have to continue to improve the services we deliver and we have embraced a considerable amount of change already in response to this report,” he said.
The report is part of a rolling programme of child protection inspections of police forces in England and Wales.
This is a great program. Keep up the good work.