Police forces across Britain England and Wales were largely unable to account for the necessity, circumstance and safeguarding outcome of the hundreds of strip-searches of children conducted each year, according to a new report out Monday. File Photo by Hugo Philpott/UPI | License Photo
March 27 (UPI) -- British police are using their stop and search powers to strip-search children as young as 8 in unacceptably large numbers, the country's watchdog for children warned Monday.
In her 61-page report, Children's Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza found that at least 2,847 children were strip-searched in England and Wales over a four-and-half-year period from 2018 to 2022, many of them without an appropriate adult present.
The analysis found that Black children were disproportionately affected.
"What this shows is that this is not an isolated problem, limited to London. Across England and Wales, police are strip-searching children as part of stop and searches and there is evidence of deeply concerning practice," wrote de Souza.
"My findings include evidence of widespread non-compliance with the statutory safeguards in place to protect children, including the lack of appropriate adults in more than half of searches and strip searches being conducted in schools, police vehicles, and within public view."
The commissioner said she found it "utterly unacceptable" that Black children were up to six times more likely to be strip searched when compared to national population figures.
Children's advocacy groups expressed shock and called for the strip-searching of children to be banned.
Runnymede Trust said the report was "incredibly disturbing", highlighting the findings that a quarter of searches were of children 15 or younger and that more than 50% of the time police found nothing.
"We are steadfast in our position that the power of police to strip search children should be revoked," the group said in a Twitter post. "We do not consent to the violent, traumatic and discriminatory policing we are subjected to, let alone our children."
The National Police Chiefs' Council pledged to "carefully consider" the report's findings.
The report follows de Souza's publication in August of a troubling report on strip-searching in the aftermath of the 2020 strip-searching of Child Q, a 15-year-old black girl, in Hackney in London.
De Souza added that she had serious concerns about the poor quality of record-keeping which made transparency and scrutiny very difficult and cautioned that the numbers in her report may only be a minimum.
But she said that working, robust safeguards required to permit such intrusive and potentially traumatic power when necessary were absent.
The additional complexity of conducting these searches during a stop and search meant that there should be an even higher degree of scrutiny than if conducted in custody, not less.
"I do not see a working system of safeguards," said de Souza. "I see a fundamentally reactive and permissive system that places too much reliance on non-specialist frontline officers always doing the right thing, with no system of scrutiny to ensure that vital safeguards are being met, and little consideration of the impact of a potentially traumatic power on vulnerable children."
She said her investigation had only been possible, not because the Child Q case had come out in an inspection report or a whistleblower, but because the child had come forward.
De Souza called for strengthening the guidelines for strip searches and for oversight and inspection to ensure compliance and reform of a culture that has allowed the practice to go unchallenged.
She said she found it completely unacceptable that police forces in England and Wales were largely unable to account for the necessity, circumstance and safeguarding outcome of every strip search of a child.
Policy changes by London's Metropolitan Police and elsewhere were welcomed by de Souza but she said that children were being failed nationally by those whose job it was to protect them because the rules under which Child Q was searched had not been strengthened.
"Much more work is required to create a culture among the police in which children are, first and foremost, treated as children," she said.