Only a third of police cases involving vulnerable children are handled to a good standard, inspectors have found.
Of 576 cases involving vulnerable children looked at by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), 177 were found to have been dealt with to a good standard, while 220 were viewed as inadequate and 179 were deemed as adequate.
South Yorkshire Police was one of eight forces inspected by HMIC as part of the National Child Protection Inspection programme, which found, nationally, a system which displays inconsistency and weakness from the first contact of a child with police and through to the investigation.
The findings are from three reports published by the HMIC, which warn that the police must reassess their approach to child protection or risk failing a new generation.
Last year another report revealed that 1,400 children had been sexually abused over 16 years in Rotherham by men of largely Pakistani heritage while authorities turned a blind eye.
Dru Sharpling, who led the inspections, said: “Children must come first - there can be no compromise when it comes to child protection. Getting it right most of the time can never be the explanation for failures that have devastating consequences for the child, carers and families.”
She noted that the quality of risk assessments - the fundamental building blocks of child protection practice - is patchy.
On ‘too many occasions’ the HMIC found that investigations into child abuse or neglect were poor and plagued by delay. They also found that responses to reports of offences against children - ranging from online grooming to domestic abuse - was inadequate.
It was noted that in one case police and social services agreed, without consulting a medical practitioner, that the likely cause of vaginal bleeding in a four- year-old was eczema even though the child had made sexual allegations against a family member.
In contrast, the report highlighted a detective, with much-needed good communication skills, helped a 13 year-old who was having a sexual relationship with a 20 year-old.
The detective identified the girl as a victim of sexual abuse, arranged for specially trained officers to interview the family, provided advice and reassurance, quickly involved child care services, arrested the alleged perpetrator and took action to safeguard other children.
The inspectors were ‘surprised’ that some officers accused children of crimes rather than treating them as a potential victim.
They also heard that children were accused of lying when reporting an offence of sexual assault.
The report - In Harm’s Way: the role of police in keeping children safe - concludes: “The level of child abuse and neglect is so high that it is difficult to process or comprehend. Responding on a case-by-case basis may be inadequate for the task.
“We found limited evidence that the police listened to children, and poor attitudes towards vulnerable children persisted in some teams. We also found that investigations were often inadequate, with insufficient action taken to disrupt and apprehend some perpetrators.”
It also noted that although progress has been made ‘the gap between expected good practice and actual practice on the ground is significant’.
The HMIC praised the ‘pockets of excellent practice’ it found but stated that this seemed to be because of dedicated and professional individuals and teams, rather than a united, understood and applied focus on protecting children at force level.
The HMIC also hoped for a shift in old target-driven methods of policing, arguing that children must be placed at the heart of what policing does next.
Assistant Chief Constable Ingrid Lee, of South Yorkshire Police, said: “South Yorkshire Police continues to work hard with its partners to improve its response to child sexual exploitation.
“The force has invested heavily to significantly increase the staff within our Public Protection Units, our frontline and specialist staff have been trained to spot the signs of not only sexual exploitation but also other areas of harm a child may be exposed to, improving our recognition of risk and our response to it.
“Multi Agency Safeguarding Hubs have already been implemented in two districts with two to follow, greatly improving joint working and the sharing of information between agencies. The joined up working practices and relationships between partners continues to develop positively and has been recently acknowledged by the lead Commissioner for Children’s Social Care in Rotherham.
“All investigations in relation to sexual crimes are complex, requiring painstaking investigation, but the work we have done to improve practice and the support we have had from the Crown Prosecution Service and other partners has culminated in 58 people being charged with child sexual exploitation related offences between April 2014 and May 2105. In the last two weeks alone, we have charged three men with almost 80 offences against children.
“Nevertheless, this report makes it clear that there still remains much work to do and we will use the comments of HMIC as the catalyst for further improvements to protect children in the county.”