A report by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children (APPGC) warns that children who have suffered sexual abuse face a 'postcode lottery' in the way that they are treated by police officers.
The group found that many young people's first experience of the police is as a victim or a suspected offender and many children first encounter the police through being stopped and searched.
The report states: 'Unfortunately, the inquiry heard that the police response to CSE (child sexual exploitation) and trafficking victims was a "postcode lottery", leading to very different experiences and outcomes for children nationally.'
During the inquiry, the APPGC took evidence from children and young people, organisations working with children and young people, and representatives from police forces across the country. The inquiry heard that children and young people’s attitudes towards the police are often characterised by feelings of mistrust and sometimes fear. The majority of those giving evidence were clear that more work is needed if there are to be strong and positive relationships between children, young people and the police. There are examples of good practice, reflecting the work of police leaders and officers who are dedicated to improving the way they work with children. However, these examples of good practice are not replicated across the country.
Section one of this report summarises the views and experiences of children and young people involved with the police, based on evidence given to the inquiry by children and young people themselves and those who work with them. Section two examines current police practice with children and young people, and the policy and legislative framework that governs the work of police forces.
Overall, the inquiry found that:
There is a lack of trust in the police among many children and young people. Some children and young people fear the police. Encounters between the two groups are often characterised by poor and unconstructive communication and a lack of mutual respect. Experts told the APPGC that it takes time and hard work to change these ingrained attitudes and behaviours. It is critical that in every encounter with the police, under 18s are be treated as children first, with all officers having regard for their welfare, safety and well-being, as required under sections 10 and 11 of the Children Act 2004 and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Certain groups of children and young people, many of whom are likely to have higher levels of contact with the police, share similar feelings and attitudes. Children in care, who are over-represented in the youth justice system, can have negative early experiences of the police and do not always get the support and protection they need. The additional vulnerabilities of children with special educational needs, a language or communication difficulty, or mental health needs can be overlooked or exacerbated in encounters with the police. The way in which the police treat children who have been trafficked or experienced sexual abuse was described as a ‘postcode lottery’ – these children are often confused by police processes and report being treated with a lack of respect.
First contact with the police is important in shaping children and young people’s attitudes, yet for a significant number of children and young people this experience is a negative one. There are examples of positive school and community initiatives that help children and young people encounter the police in a positive context. However, for many, the first contact will be as a victim or suspected offender. Therefore the way in which the police carry out processes – such as the way they use stop and search or the way they treat children who are arrested and detained – is vital for building trust and respect.
Many children and young people will first have contact with the police when they are stopped and searched. While young people understand why the police need to use stop and search, they feel they are stopped too often and for insufficient reason, that they are not treated with respect, and that the police do not explain the process or reason for the stop. For those who are arrested and detained, the experience can be traumatic and upsetting, with very vulnerable children often exposed to a space designed for adults, usually without separate or designated facilities for children.
Some children and young people are involved in police initiatives through their schools and communities, such as Safer School Partnerships or Voluntary Police Cadets, which help break down barriers and negative perceptions. These examples of positive engagement are, however, not found in all schools or communities and are being threatened by reductions in police budgets.
There are examples of police forces that work hard to listen to and engage with children and young people in a variety of contexts, and to treat them, first and foremost, as children in all aspects of the police process. However, these positive approaches are not reflected across the country. Greater effort is needed nationally to assist local police forces in identifying and implementing good practice examples from other parts of the country. Training and professional development for police officers should enable them to understand how they can improve their practice to meet the needs of children and young people.
The policy and legislative framework governing the work of the police does not pay sufficient attention to the needs of children and young people or address the specific considerations of working with this age group. In particular:
the rights and specific needs of children must be reflected in guidance relating to the stop and search process, and searches should only take place, particularly on younger children, when absolutely necessary;
17 year-olds should have the same rights and entitlements as younger children in legislation and guidance relating to police processes;
police forces should have designated or separate custody facilities for children and young people, and provide access to youth liaison and diversion to identify and address needs;
a focused effort is needed to ensure that all children and young people who are refused bail after being charged are transferred to local authority accommodation, as is required by law; and
nationally endorsed guidance and protocols should be put in place for the purpose of reducing the criminalisation of children in care.
Conservative MP Tim Loughton, vice-chair of APPGC, said, 'whilst we found some examples of good practice, clearly more needs to be done to make good practice common place across the country. Our children and young people deserve nothing less.'