Ofsted chief warns of 'serious weaknesses' in child protection by police forces
Police failures to take child protection seriously could lead to a repeat of the horrifying abuse scandals seen in Rotherham and Oxford, the chief inspector of schools has claimed.
Ofsted boss Sir Michael Wilshaw said that there are "serious weaknesses" in how a string of forces deal with the issue in a damning letter to police watchdog chief Sir Tom Winsor.
He wrote: "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 report found that in Rotherham 1,400 children were systematically sexually abused between 1997 and 2013; while in Oxford more than 300 were violently abused and tortured over more than 15 years.
Accusing some forces of failing "to take their child protection responsibilities seriously", Sir Michael said that more than half of Ofsted's 42 inspections of local authority children's services in 2015/16 revealed "serious weaknesses" in police contributions to protecting youngsters.
There were cases where forces were not quick enough in telling social workers when children went missing, Sir Michael said, and o fficers had failed to attend key meetings about child protection, or visits with social workers. In a number of forces there were delays in flagging up domestic abuse cases to the local council.
Sir Michael said that the "most serious concerns" were raised about Cleveland Police's support for children's services in Stockton-on-Tees.
In one case, the Ofsted inspector questioned a police decision to close a case even though "there was clear evidence that the children concerned had suffered non-accidental injuries".
The investigation was re-opened after the local council intervened when Ofsted raised concerns.
Officers were often unable to attend meetings about children potentially at risk of serious harm, and therefore intervention plans could not be agreed, and had been told not to go to meetings about unborn children.
The 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 of the local authority's children's services".
Elsewhere, issues highlighted included in Southend, where social workers were left alone on "potentially dangerous child protection visits", and were unable to remove children from the home without police officers present.
In Torbay, officers took children into police protection without telling social workers; and in Dorset, a backlog of criminal records checks led to delays in allowing families to adopt.
In his reply, Sir Tom, who leads watchdog Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), said the body is currently assessing how well police deal with vulnerable victims and child safety.
He said: "We will persist in ensuring that the police understand their very high public duty most efficiently and effectively to use their powers, and discharge their responsibilities, in connection with the protection of children."
The National Police Chiefs' Council lead for child protection, Chief Constable Simon Bailey said he will raise Sir Michael's concerns with all chief officers.
He said: "I am confident that the police service has significantly improved our response to protecting children in recent years. That does not mean that there aren't challenges at times in forces in terms of resourcing and working with our partners; our partners in social care, education and health face these challenges too.
"It is therefore vitally important that we continue to work together so that the children are given adequate protection and support. Strengthening these relationships is the only way we'll prevent future abuse."
A spokeswoman for Essex Police said: "There is no higher priority for Essex Police than protecting vulnerable children and the last single inspection of Essex said 'children who need to be protected immediately are safe because social workers and the police work together quickly and well'. Few forces have invested more in tackling these issues."
She said improvements in child protection had been recognised by HMIC, and that officers regularly attend case meetings with council staff.
Dorset Police said the backlog in processing criminal records checks had been caused by staff turnover and an increase in applications to around 600 per week, but that the number of staff had since been doubled - which had reduced delays.
Temporary Deputy Chief Constable of Cleveland Police Simon Nickless said the number of officers dealing with child abuse and sex offenders had been boosted in the past year.
He went on: " Cleveland Police takes safeguarding extremely seriously and works closely with all local authorities and other safeguarding agencies on a daily basis to protect children from harm. Protecting the vulnerable and recognising risk in our communities is our priority."
The common assault case that was incorrectly closed was re-opened the same day, Mr Nickless said, and added: "The decision to close the investigation was contrary to force procedures and the force does not believe this reflects general standards of investigation."
Officers prioritise attendance at key meetings and moves are in place to improve the number of gatherings at which police are present, he said.