Black children were up to six times more likely to be strip-searched by police and more than half of the almost-3,000 strip-searches in recent years have taken place without an appropriate adult present, a report has shown.
Locations for searches across England and Wales included police vehicles and schools with a small number even taking place in takeaways and amusement parks, the research by the Children’s Commissioner revealed.
Dame Rachel de Souza said the findings demonstrated “evidence of deeply concerning practice” with “widespread non-compliance” with statutory safeguards, and added that children are “being failed by those whose job it is to protect them”.
The commissioner ordered the report after the Child Q scandal which came to light last March.
The 15-year-old black schoolgirl was strip-searched by police while on her period after being wrongly suspected of carrying cannabis at school.
After that scandal Dame Rachel requested figures for strip-searches by the Metropolitan Police force which, when reported last August, showed more than 600 children underwent “intrusive and traumatising” searches over a two-year period, with black boys disproportionately targeted.
The latest report, published on Monday and showing data for forces across England and Wales, revealed a total of 2,847 strip-searches took place between 2018 and mid-2022 of children aged between eight and 17.
The vast majority of children strip-searched were boys (95%) while 5% of such searches were carried out on girls.
About 38% of children strip-searched were black and the report found black children were up to six times more likely to be strip-searched when compared with national population figures, while white children were around half as likely to be searched.
The report described this as a “pronounced and deeply concerning ethnic disproportionality” and Dame Rachel branded it “utterly unacceptable”.
The commissioner said she has “serious concerns about the poor quality of record-keeping, which makes transparency and scrutiny very difficult, and means that the numbers in this report may only be a minimum”.
One per cent of strip-searches were conducted “within public view”, the report said, although the location was not recorded in 45% of cases.
More than half (52%) of strip-searches were conducted without an appropriate adult confirmed to be present.
Among her recommendations Dame Rachel is calling for “urgency” to be removed as an exception and said constant supervision should be recommended.
Six per cent of strip-searches were conducted with at least one officer of a different gender than the child being searched present, the report added.
Dame Rachel said while she accepted that strip-searching children can be necessary in limited situations, it is an “intrusive and potentially traumatic power” which must be subject to “robust safeguards”.
She said: “The additional complexity of conducting these searches during a stop and search should mean that there is a higher degree of scrutiny than if conducted in custody, not less.”
Dame Rachel said attention on the issue had not come about due to a police whistleblower or a damning inspection report, but “the bravery of a girl to speak up about a traumatic thing that happened to her”, referring to the case of Child Q.
The commissioner warned that officers are too often “forgetting that children are children” as she called for a strengthening of the guidelines around strip-searches, more oversight and inspection to ensure compliance, and reform of a culture “that has allowed this to go unchallenged”.
Among her 17 recommendations, Dame Rachel called on the the Home Office to carry out a comprehensive review of the legislative and policy framework for child strip-searches and make specific changes to the Police and Criminal Evidence (Pace) Codes.
She said schools should be excluded as an appropriate location for a strip-search and that they should only be conducted at a nearby police station, medical premises or home address.
Dame Rachel said the Home Office should require forces to report annually on the strip-searching of children, including recording ethnicity, whether an appropriate adult was present, the specific location and whether a safeguarding referral was made.
She said the National Police Chiefs’ Council should also publish an action plan on reforming stop and search practices, including strip-searches of children.
Dame Rachel said: “I find it completely unacceptable that police forces in England and Wales are largely unable to account for the necessity, circumstance and safeguarding outcome of every strip-search of a child that they conduct.
“I will not accept that the power to strip-search is being used responsibly until that is the case.”
The Children’s Commissioner’s office said it “eagerly anticipates” recommendations to be made by the Independent Office for Police Conduct which is investigating the Child Q case.