The police force at the centre of the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal still needs to make “major improvements” to some of its child protection procedures, according to a Government watchdog.
A report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary published in September last year raised “serious concerns” about South Yorkshire Police’s approach to child protection.
Now the inspectors have returned to the force and found signs of progress but also concluded there is “still important work for South Yorkshire Police to do to improve the protection of children”.
Of the 27 cases looked at linked with last year’s recommendations, two were assessed as good, 19 “requiring improvement” and seven as inadequate.
Inspectors said the force often failed to recognise the “vulnerability of an adolescent at the earliest opportunity”, adding: “In some cases, the behaviour of adolescents was seen as a problem rather than a potential symptom of wider safeguarding concerns”.
The report said: “For example, a 15-year-old girl was demonstrating signs of vulnerability due to sexual exploitation and drug taking. She was characterised as a ‘naughty child’ on police records and her behaviour was viewed in that context.
“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 and safeguarding action was not considered at an earlier stage.”
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.”
Mr Cunningham said: “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.”
Today’s report, which follows an inspection review in April, found improvements to the force’s initial response when attending incidents involving children at risk, that child protection has been prioritised and there is a strong desire to improve outcomes for children who are at risk of harm.
It also found that the force is developing new joint working arrangements and structures to improve consistency.
But the inspectors also found there had not been improvements to practice in relation to children in care homes, the force was still failing to recognise risks to some children and recording practices remained poor, which “limits the ability of staff to make good decisions about children”.
The report said the force had trained its staff to raise awareness about bringing their concerns to other agencies when children were considered at risk of harm.
It said: “We were encouraged to find that in one case, during a strategy discussion, officers had challenged children’s social care services about the suitability of a children’s home for a 15-year-old girl who had been regularly reported missing and found under the influence of drugs.”
HMIC said that since last year’s review another 62 investigators had been brought in to work in child protection, as well as extra public protection staff, bringing the total to 302.
Last year’s HMIC inspection report found that South Yorkshire Police had “limited understanding” of the risk posed by offenders who target vulnerable children while officers showed an inconsistent response to child sexual exploitation.
South Yorkshire Police was heavily criticised in last year’s Jay Report, which exposed how at least 1,400 children had been subjected to child sexual exploitation in Rotherham between 1997 and 2013.
Professor Alexis Jay criticised officers for “regarding many child victims with contempt”. Her report provoked a wave of condemnation which resulted in a series of high-profile resignations.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission is currently investigating how South Yorkshire Police officers dealt with cases in Rotherham and the National Crime Agency has begun a major fresh investigation of allegations of child sexual exploitation in the town. A separate review has been set up by South Yorkshire’s police commissioner.
In its summary, the watchdog said it “recognises that South Yorkshire Police has faced unprecedented demand following the reviews in Rotherham and by the National Crime Agency”.
It added: “It is clear that the force is committed to improving the protection of children. Child protection has been prioritised and there is a strong desire to improve outcomes for children who are at risk of harm.
“Much work is underway to improve the protection of children and there are force and multi-agency plans in place. Some important steps have been taken to implement the majority of the recommendations from HMIC’s inspection in April 2014 and some improvements were evident.
“However, this body of work has yet to translate into improved practice on the front line and some children have been left at risk of harm.
“Force leaders now need to accelerate the pace of change across all child protection matters with an unambiguous focus on improving the quality of services on the front line.”
South Yorkshire Police’s Assistant Constable Ingrid Lee responded to the findings by stating that the wellbeing and safeguarding of vulnerable children “is at the heart of everything we do” but agreed more progress is needed.
She said: “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.”
She added that 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 relating to those.
Dr Alan Billings, South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, 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.
“This month we began 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 CSE.
“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.”
Karen Froggatt, director for child victims of sexual exploitation at the independent charity Victim Support, said: “There’s an urgent need for a shift in attitude from all agencies to recognise that young people are vulnerable and often drugs, alcohol and threats play a part in the lead up to abusive behaviour.”