Devon and Cornwall force 'inconsistent' on child grooming cases
A police force has been ordered to make immediate improvements after a watchdog found it had an "inconsistent" response to child sexual exploitation.
Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) said its inspectors found Devon and Cornwall Police officers had a "lack of understanding" about the extent of the issue.
In some cases children were reported missing from home more than 10 times without any action taken, while in nine out of 10 of those cases inspectors found children could have been at risk of sexual exploitation.
"Officers did not always recognise that children who regularly go missing from home may be at risk of being groomed for sexual abuse," the report said.
While the force provided training to all officers and staff, not all had a "thorough awareness" of how to identify children at risk.
In one example, the case of a 13-year-old girl who sent more than 30 explicit images to an older man over the internet was closed without a suspect being identified or a referral to child social care services.
Another case involved the alleged sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl by her friend's father. While she was spoken to within two weeks, the suspect had not been arrested six months later and officers did not consider the "wider risk" he could pose.
The force responded well in the first instance to a report and in investigating it further, but recording of information was "frequently poor" and long-term strategies for safeguarding were "often absent".
HM Inspector of Constabulary Wendy Williams said: " Devon and Cornwall Police demonstrated a strong commitment to improving services for the protection of vulnerable people. However, while we found a number of examples of good work to protect children, this commitment has not yet resulted in consistently improved outcomes for children.
"We were concerned to find that in a significant number of cases we looked at, poor supervision and record keeping had undermined decision making and safeguarding measures. Some serious cases were investigated by non-specialist officers, resulting in delays, and potential risks posed by alleged offenders not being considered.
"The force must also improve how it tackles child sexual exploitation. While the force is taking some steps to address this, it still has much more to do to demonstrate that it is able to effectively identify and safeguard children at risk.
"The response to children who regularly go missing from home also requires improvement, with a particular focus on early intervention and ensuring that officers and staff understand the link between children who regularly go missing and the risk of sexual exploitation. "
Devon and Cornwall Police has six weeks to respond with an action plan, HMIC said.
Detective Superintendent Paul Northcott, head of Devon and Cornwall's public protection unit, said: "The force has specialist staff that are dedicated and trained to undertake complex child abuse investigations and who on a daily basis work to protect the interests of some of the most vulnerable people in our community.
"We have also invested in developing and implementing a fresh approach to the way we assess risk and work with other agencies to prevent, investigate and deliver tangible outcomes in relation to child safeguarding. This process will be implemented by the end of this year and will involve all of our frontline staff receiving additional training in this area.
"We recognise that we have to continue to improve the services we deliver and we have embraced a considerable amount of change already in response to this report."
Det Supt Northcott said the force was "working hard" to deliver improved outcomes for children and had to improve recording standards, as work was often not captured on its IT systems.
Last November, Assistant Chief Constable Paul Netherton tweeted: "'We have a 16yr old girl suffering from mental health issues held in police custody. There are no beds available in the uk! #unacceptable''.
Following his intervention, Home Secretary Theresa May announced that teenagers with mental health conditions would no longer be held in police cells.
The report found three cases of children being detained in cells in the 12 months prior to the inspection, representing a "significant downward trend across the force area".
Det Supt Northcott added: "The force also recognises the importance of not detaining children and young people in custody and at the time of the inspection we were working with children's services across the peninsula to ensure appropriate arrangements are put into place to avoid this from occurring.
"This is particularly important when working with those that are suffering from mental illness and considerable progress has been made in this area of work."
An NSPCC spokesman said: "It is simply not good enough in the wake of so many child sexual exploitation cases for police to say they still don't understand the links between children repeatedly going missing from care and the risk of those children being groomed for abuse.
"Urgent action is needed so that all officers and backroom staff know the value of early intervention, good record-keeping and, most importantly, listening and acting swiftly when children or parents report concerns."