South Yorkshire Police still failing child grooming victims, new review finds

South Yorkshire Police Headquarters on Carbrook Hall Road, Sheffield
South Yorkshire Police Headquarters on Carbrook Hall Road, Sheffield

South Yorkshire Police is still failing victims of child sexual exploitation, a new report has revealed.

HM Inspectorate of Constabulary has demanded ‘major improvements’ of the force after a review of its child protection work was carried out in April.

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The report said the force has faced ‘unprecedented demand’ on it following the Rotherham grooming scandal and added child protection work has been prioritised.

But it said while work is taking place, ‘this has yet to translate into improved practice on the front line and some children have been left at risk of harm’.

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HMIC has recommended that the force takes immediate action to review its plans for identifying, disrupting and prosecuting perpetrators involved in child sexual exploitation against children in care homes.

As part of the review, six cases involving children in care homes were examined - with police found to be dealing with three inadequately.

The three inadequate cases all involved children deemed at risk of sexual exploitation.

The report said: “There was a failure to assess and recognise escalating risk to children; lack of inter-agency working and planning, and a failure to investigate effectively allegations of crime leaving children at risk of harm.

“Inspectors were concerned about the poor police response during an Ofsted inspection of a children’s home in the force area, which was graded as inadequate. Ofsted inspectors raised concerns with children’s social care services about the welfare of two boys, one of whom was at risk of sexual exploitation and regularly reported missing from the children’s home.

“Although South Yorkshire Police had previous involvement with the child at risk of sexual exploitation and held information about him, officers did not respond to a request from children’s social care services to attend a strategy meeting, nor was a joint investigation carried out.”

Concerns were raised about a lack of focus on tackling offenders targeting vulnerable children living in care homes, an issue highlighted in detail in last August’s Jay report on the Rotherham scandal.

It said in one case, men aged between 18 and 26 were targeting four vulnerable girls aged between 14 and 16 living in the same children’s home.

The HMIC report said: “There were numerous records concerning the girls on police systems, including allegations of sexual abuse and involvement in drink and drugs, but the force had failed to gather all the information together to assess correctly the significant risk posed by the offenders to these and other vulnerable girls.

“Inspectors were told that a multi-agency problem profile had been commissioned and would be completed by September 2015.”

Inspectors also found that police records had characterised a 15-year-old girl being sexually exploited and with drug problems as a ‘naughty child’.

The HMIC report said: “There was insufficient consideration given to the pattern and meaning of her behaviour in the early stages of her involvement with the force, and she was not believed by officers when she made allegations about physical abuse by her stepfather. As a consequence, the allegations were not investigated.”

It also highlighted another case involving sexual activity with a 14-year-old girl where there was a 10-day delay starting an investigation - despite concerns being raised by the girl’s mother.

The report added that the risks to children frequently reported to be missing from home - seen as a potential indicator of a child being a victim of sexual exploitation - were ‘not always recognised’.

It said: “Inspectors examined four cases involving 15-year-old and 16-year-old children who were frequently reported missing from home.

“Officers did not look more deeply into their behaviour, the places they were going to or the people they were meeting.

“Consequently, the risk to the children remained high for considerable periods of time without appropriate action being taken.”

It also highlighted one case involving sexual activity with a 14-year-old girl where there was a delay of 10 days from the initial report to an investigation taking place - despite concerns being raised by the girl’s mother.

It said: “This left the child at risk of further harm during this period.

“Supervisory oversight for child abuse investigations was inconsistent. Records assessed by inspectors contained few meaningful entries to demonstrate that supervisors were actively progressing actions through regular reviews.”

The new HMIC report, published today, is a follow-up of an initial inspection last September which found South Yorkshire Police had ‘an inconsistent approach to child protection’.

It said improvements have been made to the force’s initial response when attending incidents involving children at risk, while there is a ‘strong desire to improve outcomes for children who are at risk of harm’.

But inspectors said they were concerned to find the force was still failing to recognise risks to some children and work jointly with other agencies, recording practices remained poor and there had been no improvements to practice in dealing with children’s care homes.

HM Inspector of Constabulary Mike Cunningham said: “It is common knowledge that South Yorkshire Police’s approach to protecting children has been severely lacking. In September last year HMIC raised serious concerns about the way the force was approaching this kind of work, which was undermining the service it provides to children.

“We carried out this post-inspection review in order to understand what progress South Yorkshire Police had made since our initial inspection, and we found there were still areas that need major improvements.

“I am keen to stress however, that the situation in South Yorkshire is not irretrievable. There are tangible signs that the force is improving its service to children in some elements of its service to children, so I am encouraged that the senior leadership of South Yorkshire Police demonstrated the determination to make improvements.

“HMIC will continue to monitor South Yorkshire Police approach to child protection.”

Assistant Chief Constable Ingrid Lee, of South Yorkshire Police, said: “The wellbeing and safeguarding of vulnerable children is paramount and is at the heart of everything we do.

“The force has made significant progress in protecting children, however, we agree with HMIC that more needs to be done.

“There has been a considerable increase in the number of police officers and staff in our public protection units, and also staff dedicated to tackling child sexual exploitation. We are absolutely committed to achieving justice, stopping harm and preventing future offending.

“There are currently 164 live investigations relating to child sexual exploitation and in the last three months alone, a further 19 people have been charged with offences related to those investigations, and in recent weeks seven people have been charged with 94 offences relating to Operation Clover, which is a non-recent investigation in Rotherham.

“Operation Makesafe, which is an initiative established by police across the county to help prevent young people being sexual exploited in hotels, has resulted in 40 reports from hoteliers which resulted in eight people being arrested for child sexual exploitation related offences.

“All frontline officers and specialist staff have now been trained in relation to child sexual exploitation and we continue to invest in extra resources with 302 staff now dedicated to this work.

“The report recognises that the force has been influential in establishing multi-agency safeguarding hubs, which have representatives from all agencies working together under one roof and this is a ‘significant achievement,’ which will improve the protection of children.

“The force has identified a series of recommendations for improvement and is in the process of embedding them; HMIC recognise that successful implementation of these can improve how child protection is tackled.”

South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, Dr Alan Billings, said: “This report paints a mixed picture. This should not surprise us because it comes at a particular moment in time. The initial inspection was in May last year. But it was overtaken by the Jay report which came out in August. That changed everything. For the first time the full extent of child sexual exploitation was revealed. Since then South Yorkshire Police have had to look at every area of their practice, past and present.

“The report shows the force where they have made progress but more particularly where improvements still have to be made. Part of my task will be to ensure that what is recommended is implemented.

“Since the follow-up inspection on which this report is based there has been further progress.

“We have begun to see perpetrators arrested and charged. Prosecutions will follow later this year.

“We are also having better partnership arrangements. Police officers and social workers are being located together in the same buildings across the four district authorities. The Rotherham Children’s Commissioner has said this is working well there.

“I have put extra resources into work with vulnerable people, including victims of child sexual exploitation.

“I set up a Victims, Survivors and their Families panel. This month they met with police officers for the first time so that the force can hear directly from them about their experiences. This will enable the police to learn how to improve their response to victims, so they are treated with sensitivity and respect.

“I recently announced the Drew Review. Professor John Drew will be looking across the whole of South Yorkshire – Barnsley, Doncaster and Sheffield as well as Rotherham - to assure me that South Yorkshire Police are doing everything that can be done in each of the districts.”