Police are strip-searching children in patrol cars, ‘disturbing’ report reveals

Dame Rachel de Souza said: ‘The findings of this report make for disturbing, but sadly not surprising, reading’ - Anthony Upton
Dame Rachel de Souza said: ‘The findings of this report make for disturbing, but sadly not surprising, reading’ - Anthony Upton

Police are strip-searching children in their patrol cars, the Children’s Commissioner has revealed in a “disturbing” new report.

Almost 3,000 children were strip-searched by police in England and Wales between 2018 and mid-2022, according to the report by Dame Rachel de Souza.

Nearly a quarter of incidents involved a child aged between 10 and 15, while the youngest recorded case concerned an eight-year-old.

The findings are published in a “disturbing” new report, which warns that “police are failing to properly safeguard children”.

Among 2,847 cases identified by Dame Rachel were 14 examples of children being strip-searched inside police vehicles or schools.

Children strip-searched in takeaways

While the location was not recorded in 45 per cent of cases, other places where children were searched included private businesses, takeaway outlets, and amusement parks.

Furthermore, 1 per cent were conducted within public view, and 6 per cent of strip-searches were conducted with at least one officer of a different gender than the child being searched present.

More than half took place without a designated appropriate adult present, showing widespread failures to comply with statutory codes of practice for strip searching children.

‘Disturbing but not surprising’

Dame Rachel said: “The findings of this report make for disturbing, but sadly not surprising, reading. This data, combined with that which I received from the Metropolitan Police last year, is the clearest indication yet that what happened to Child Q was far from an isolated incident.

“I have severe concerns at the ethnic disproportionality shown in these figures, and at the lack of appropriate protection for children during what is often a traumatic and humiliating experience.

“It bears repeating that there is sustained attention on this issue not because of a police whistle-blower or a government report, but thanks to the bravery of a 15-year-old girl in speaking up. Without her, these failures would have gone uncovered and unnoticed.

“We urgently need to strengthen guidelines around strip-searches, with oversight and inspection to ensure police forces follow these properly, and to robustly challenge a culture that has allowed widespread failures to go unchallenged.”

The case of Child Q

The case of “Child Q” concerned a 15-year-old Black girl who was strip-searched at her school in Hackney, east London, in 2020.

Details of her case were revealed last year and drew widespread condemnation.

During the incident, she was removed from an exam and taken to her school’s medical room to be strip-searched by two female Metropolitan police officers, who were looking for cannabis.

Her teachers remained outside, no other adult was present, her parents were not contacted, and no drugs were found.

The girl’s intimate body parts were exposed and she was made to remove her sanitary towel, according to a review into the incident.

The Children’s Commissioner’s report also found that Black boys accounted for more than a third (37 per cent) of strip searches.

Black children more likely to be strip-searched

Black children are also more than six times more likely than their White counterparts to be strip-searched, the report found.

Further data shows that only 36 per cent of Black children trust the police, compared to 75 per cent of White children.

The Commissioner made a series of recommendations around strengthening national guidelines for strip-searching, improving data to drive transparency and accountability and improving practice and compliance in all police forces.

She stipulated that schools should be specifically excluded as an appropriate location for a strip search, and parents or guardians should be informed before a strip or intimate search of a child in custody or under stop-and-search powers.

Last year, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) issued recommendations to the Met Police over safeguarding issues highlighted by referrals concerning the strip-searching of children.

The watchdog had received 12 referrals concerning strip-searches from the Met last summer. The IOPC said at the time it would be investigating two of the cases.

Protecting a child’s dignity

The Met was advised to ensure an appropriate adult was present and steps were taken to protect a child’s dignity during a search.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Strip-search is one of the most intrusive powers available to the police.

“No one should be subject to strip-search on the basis of race or ethnicity and safeguards exist to prevent this.

“Any child subject to a strip-search should be accompanied by an appropriate adult unless there is an urgent risk of serious harm, or where the child specifically requests otherwise and the appropriate adult agrees.

“Such searches must be carried out by an officer of the same sex as the child.

“We take the concerns raised about children’s safeguarding extremely seriously.

“The Independent Office for Police Conduct is currently investigating several high-profile incidents of strip-search of children and it is vital that we await their findings.”