Police delays hitting child cases
Significant delays in the investigation of child protection cases have been uncovered by inspectors within one of the country's biggest police forces.
Officers at Greater Manchester Police (GMP), which was criticised in a serious case review in 2013 for failing girls who were passed around for sex by Rochdale sex grooming gangs, told inspectors that its hi-tech crime unit was taking too long to analyse computers and other media.
Eight months passed before an evidential report on a computer was provided in a case involving a school governor, while it took over six months to provide a report on a computer belonging to a known sex offender, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary said.
In another case, it took more than seven months to analyse the phone of an alleged offender said to have recorded two rapes of 14-year-old girls.
The report, part of a rolling programme of child protection inspections of all police forces in England and Wales, said: " Delays can have a detrimental effect on the welfare of the child. Children need to be protected, otherwise the confidence of children and their carers in the police may be lost."
GMP has a public protection division with 563 staff who are responsible for dealing with child protection, domestic abuse, vulnerable adult abuse, registered sex offender management and the investigation of rape and serious sexual offences.
At the time of the inspection in July, there were 174 cases that had not been allocated to a member of staff in the high- tech crime unit for analytical work.
Some of these cases dated back to November 2013 and three quarters were child abuse related, HMIC said, and t here were 141 cases being worked on by 14 staff.
"Staff in the unit were committed and wanted to 'get the job done' but were under extreme pressure and working long hours," the report said. " Managers in the unit were aware of the problems and, at the time of the inspection, had reported their concerns to senior officers."
Elsewhere, HMIC found inconsistent practice across the force, particularly in dealing with child sexual exploitation, and that children were being unnecessarily detained in police custody overnight.
However, inspectors did conclude the force had " a strong commitment and visible leadership" for child protection and clear plans for continued improvement.
The report also praised staff responsible for managing child abuse investigations for being "knowledgeable, skilled and dedicated".
HM Inspector of Constabulary Mike Cunningham said: " We found that staff managing child protection investigations were knowledgeable and dedicated to providing good outcomes for children.
"The focus now needs to be on driving consistently high standards across the whole force area.
"I was concerned that inspectors found significant delays in the investigation of a number of child protection cases, and would like to see these delays reduced. There were instances of children being unnecessarily detained in custody overnight, which I would also like to see addressed."
In 2012, nine men were convicted of raping and trafficking young girls as young as 13 in Rochdale, which falls under the GMP catchment area. A serious case review by the Rochdale Safeguarding Children Board highlighted failures by 17 agencies, including GMP, who failed girls who were "passed around for sex".
GMP Assistant Chief Constable Dawn Copley said the force recognised " the delays that can sometimes arise when investigating cases involving child abuse and the distress this can cause to the victims".
"We are now working alongside colleagues from the hi-tech crime unit and the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure these delays are kept to a minimum," she said in a statement.
"We agree with the HMIC that it if possible, keeping children in custody should be avoided and welcome the report recognises the efforts that are being made to ensure this does not happen. GMP has been central to this work nationally and we have raised the issues the police face with the Home Office.
"We are by no means at the end of our journey ... One of the key ways to improve the way we keep children away from harm is to consistently learn from past experiences - this report shows that we are committed to doing this."