POLICE are failing to protect and safeguard vulnerable children, a damning new report has revealed.

One of Lancashire Police’s most senior officers has apologised for letting down the most vulnerable but said urgent safeguarding measures had already been put in place.

The report released by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) today revealed that procedural failures of front line officers meant children were ‘needlessly exposed to the risk of harm’ and perpetrators were potentially going unpunished.

While examining 79 cases involving at-risk children, inspectors found that officers had failed to investigate an allegation that a 10-year-old girl had been assaulted by her step father; and a 17-year-old boy who attempted to commit suicide while in police custody for 44 hours.

The force said that since the inspection, it had revisited all the cases examined and identified that no further harm had been caused to the children involved.

Deputy Chief Constable Sunita Gamblin said: “I am sorry that the findings have found that we have let people down in some areas.

“I am committed, as are the rest of the chief officer team, to do everything possible urgently to put things right.

“Every child has a right to feel safe, every child has a right to feel protected, and every child has a right to know that when they are in contact with the police, they can trust us to keep them safe.

“We have taken urgent action since last year’s inspection. We have invested resources into child protection.

“We have started having early discussions with all our teams around training and giving them the time to understand the safeguarding responsibilities, some of the investigative opportunities that they should be looking at and how they can work with other agencies to keep children safe.

“And to make sure that every incident they attend and every contact they have with a child they start thinking wider, thinking about the child – their behaviour and their demeanour – and finding out more with the overall objective of keeping children safe.

The report found that some of the force’s basic processes for recording child protection incidents were weak; many of the departments responsible for child protection experience high levels of demand, which are not always being managed effectively; frontline officers do not always recognise children in need of safeguarding at the earliest opportunity; and many frontline officers see their responsibility for safeguarding children limited to the filling in of a form.”

The report states: “Many officers do not appear to understand their responsibilities or powers to safeguard children from harm.

“It is clear that some officers believe that their responsibilities are limited to the submission of a protecting vulnerable people referral, and they fail to recognise the vital role they play in assessing risk and taking steps to safeguard children at the earliest opportunity.

“An inability to meet current demand levels means the child sexual exploitation teams are focused upon intervention and prevention, with little or no capacity to undertake effective proactive work against perpetrators.”

However inspectors did find that the force’s senior leadership team does ‘have a clear commitment to child protection’, which is reflected in the police and crime plan and in the force’s priorities.

They also found the force’s work to streamline processes in each of the multi-agency safeguarding hubs was leading to improved information-sharing and the timely creation of protective plans to safeguard children; and the multi-agency child sexual exploitation teams are improving outcomes for children through early intervention and prevention activity.

An NSPCC spokesperson said: “It is very encouraging to see Lancashire Constabulary has taken positive steps to strengthen its commitment to protect every child at risk of harm. Despite this, the report highlights troubling areas that need swift improvement. 

“Frontline officers play an important role in recognising and protecting children in need of safeguarding. It’s clear that more must be done to develop this hugely important work in Lancashire.

“The public must have confidence that concerns will be appropriately acted upon and the force’s clear commitment to change must now result in progress.”

Watchdog highlights cases

THE report highlighted several examples of good and bad practice by Lancashire officers. They include:

* A 17-year-old boy who was held in custody for a burglary. The appropriate adult did not attend until the following day, 20 hours after the child had arrived in custody. The child was then charged and denied bail, following which he attempted to take his life by tying a T-shirt around his neck. Although the child was placed in a self-harm suite, no referral was made to a health care professional, nor was a mental health assessment requested. Children's services were not made aware of either his arrest nor suicide attempt and no safeguarding plan was developed.

* The mother of a three-year-old girl entered into a relationship with a 24-year-old sex offender. The child’s mother made an application of enquiry under the child sexual offender disclosure scheme and was made aware of the man's convictions and status and kept the child away from him. However, there was a delay of two weeks before a referral was submitted to children's services and the offender's risk level was not assessed until 19 days after the enquiry.

* A 14-year-old girl was arrested following an argument with her grandparents who were responsible for her care. When staff were carrying out a risk assessment the child said she had self-harmed; had thought about committing suicide earlier that day; had been diagnosed with ADHD; and had also consumed vodka that day. In spite of these disclosures, there was no referral made to a health care professional.

* A 15-year-old girl with learning difficulties was living in a care home from which she had been reported as missing numerous times. Staff at the care home checked her computer and found a large number of messages from a 25-year-old man. He had asked the child to send him pictures of her, and there was clear evidence that he was making plans to meet the child. The records show a request for a strategy meeting, but it is unclear whether this ever took place.

* One good example highlighted was the case of a 15-year-old girl who had been sent indecent images by a 15-year-old boy from school. The girl’s younger sister saw the photos and informed her parents. The constabulary’s approach was one of education rather than prosecution: both children were spoken to and given advice regarding the dangers of sending sexual pictures. Details of the case were provided to the children’s school, in order to maintain longer-term wider safeguarding.