The police service must reassess their approach to child protection - or risk failing a new generation of children

The protection of children is one of the most serious and important responsibilities entrusted to the police service. 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 published today 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 encountered in our 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 us all.

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 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.

The police have adapted before to different kinds of offending, and requirements for different skills. HMIC is confident they can do so again. But it is critical they act with conviction and urgency to bring about these changes in relation to how they respond to offences against children.

HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Sir Thomas Winsor said:

“It is imperative that police forces do all they can to ensure the vulnerable are protected and cared for, and that they and the community get justice. Our inspections found consistency across England and Wales in there being many hardworking, dedicated officers, devoted to improving the piteous plight of the vulnerable and doing a good job, often in spite of the circumstances of their role. But overall the inspections found considerable inconsistency of the treatment of vulnerable victims by the police.

“Reactive policing is only a part of the function of the police, and chief constables, police and crime commissioners and others should never dismiss or disregard the imperative of keeping everyone safe, especially the silent, the fearful and the weak.

“The police need to learn lessons from the past and improve the prevention and detection of such crimes. Forces need to recognise and protect children at risk and treat cases of child sexual exploitation as a strong indicator of an extremely serious and prevalent problem, rather than isolated incidents to be investigated and brought to justice.

“We are under no illusion about the operational difficulty of investigating child sexual exploitation, but of all cases involving vulnerable victims, those involving children deserve the most assiduous and urgent attention.

“Not least, this is because the true scale of this type of offending is still to be measured. What we have so far seen is only the tip of an iceberg.

“The sufferings of children, and the risks that other children will endure them in the future, are of the highest and gravest concerns of the whole community.
It is the duty of every member of that community, particularly the police and the other agencies of the state, to intensify their efforts to ensure that everything is done to rescue children from the perils of abuse, sexual exploitation and neglect which are so prevalent in society, risks which are intensified by the dark applications of modern technology. Their cries are the indictments of us all.”

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.

Some of the cases that HMIC looked at demonstrated the difference between cases that are dealt with well by police officers and those which are not:

  • It took three months to interview a man whose nine year old grandson accused him of rape.
  • Police and social workers agreed, without consulting a medical practitioner that the cause of vaginal bleeding in a four year old child was eczema, despite the child making allegations of sexual abuse against a family member.
  • The family of 13 year old who was having a sexual relationship with a 20 year old was offered advice and reassurance, whilst the alleged perpetrator was arrested and action taken to safeguard other children he may have had contact with.

The current child protection arrangements which deal with incidents on a case-by-case basis, with their focus on procedures may be inadequate for the task and different approaches may need to be considered. This is not a matter for the police alone.

Get the reports

In harm’s way: the role of the police in keeping children safe

Online and on the edge: real risks in a virtual world

Building the picture: an inspection of police information management


  1. HMIC is an independent inspectorate, inspecting policing in the public interest, and rigorously examines the efficiency and effectiveness of police forces to tackle crime and terrorism, improve criminal justice and raise confidence. HMIC inspects all 43 police forces in England and Wales, together with other major policing bodies.
  2. For further information, HMIC’s press office can be contacted during office hours from 8:30am – 5:00pm Monday – Friday on 020 3513 0600.
  3. HMIC’s out-of-hours press office line for urgent media enquiries is 07836 217 729