Some police forces failing on child protection, warns Ofsted chief

Michael Wilshaw says issue must be given priority to avoid ‘repeat of catastrophic failings seen in Rotherham and Oxford’

The chief inspector of schools has warned that some police forces are failing to “take their child protection responsibilities seriously”.

In a letter to the chief inspector of police on Tuesday, Sir Michael Wilshaw, the outgoing head of the schools inspectorate, said more than half of Ofsted’s 42 inspections of local authority children’s services in the past year had identified serious weaknesses in the police’s contribution to safeguarding children.

Inspectors found that police forces were failing to share information about domestic abuse cases in a timely way and were not notifying social workers quickly enough when children went missing. They also found there were delays by the police in vetting people to work with children.

“I would like to be reassured that every chief constable recognises the vital role that the police have to play in protecting our most vulnerable children from harm,” wrote Wilshaw in a letter to Sir Tom Winsor. “They are the ones armed with the intelligence to identify where organised abuse may be taking place and to spot emerging patterns of criminal activity.

“I fully appreciate that in the current climate, police forces are facing many competing pressures and demands on their limited resources. However, my worry is that if chief constables fail to give this issue sufficient priority, we may see a repeat of the sort of catastrophic failings we saw a few years ago in places like Rotherham, Oxford and elsewhere.”

A review by the National Crime Agency in April found that a catalogue of police failings left criminals free to sexually abuse more than 1,400 children in Rotherham over a 16-year period. A serious case review in March last year similarly found that Thames Valley police failed to prevent more than 300 young people being sexually exploited by gangs of men in Oxfordshire.

Wilshaw said that the most serious concerns raised about the role of police in protecting children followed an inspection of children’s services in Stockton-on-Tees. Inspectors found an “unacceptable and potentially dangerous gulf between the stated priorities of Cleveland police in relation to its support for child protection and the practice observed in the course of the inspection”, he said.

“In one disturbing case, Ofsted’s lead inspector also had cause to question the decision by the police to close an investigation even though there was clear evidence that the children concerned had suffered non-accidental injuries,” wrote Wilshaw. “It was only through the intervention of the local authority, prompted by my inspectors, that this case was reopened and further investigated by the police.”

Cleveland police said protecting the vulnerable and recognising risk in their communities was their priority. A spokesperson said: “The letter from Ofsted refers to an inspection, focused on Stockton borough council, which took place during May-June 2016.

“We acknowledged the issues raised by Ofsted in their report published in July 2016 and take the points raised by Ofsted extremely seriously. The force co-operated fully with Ofsted inspectors at the time to explain our approach to attendance at strategy meetings and measures already in place to deliver improvement.”

Responding to Wilshaw’s letter, Winsor wrote that Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary inspected every force in England and Wales annually and this included an assessment of how forces protect the vulnerable from harm and support victims.

“In our 2015 vulnerability report, we rated 27 forces as requiring improvement and four as inadequate; vulnerability of course includes child protection,” he said, adding: “You will of course recognise that many of the problems to which you refer are also concerns of local authorities and other statutory agencies.”

He said the body would persist in ensuring that the police understood their “very high public duty most efficiently and effectively to use their powers, and discharge their responsibilities, in connection with the protection of children”.

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Frances Perraudin North of England reporter

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