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Stop strip searching children!

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

The Metropolitan Police are under constant criticism, more than any other police force, for at least as long as I have been a criminologist. Their latest scandal began with the case of Child Q, a 15 year old girl who was strip searched in school while she was menstruating after being suspected of carrying cannabis. No drugs were found and Child Q was extremely traumatised, resulting in self-harm and a suicide attempt. Tré Ventour recently wrote a blog about Child Q, race and policing in education here but following this week’s Children’s Commissioner report, there’s so much more to discuss.

The report focussed on the Metropolitan Police who strip searched 650 children in 2 years, many (23%) of whom were searched without the presence of an appropriate adult and as we criminologists would expect, the children were disproportionately Black boys. These findings were not surprising or shocking to me, and I also know that the Metropolitan Police force are not just one bad apple in this respect. The brutal search of Child Q occurred in 2020 but incidences such as these have been happening for years.

A teenage boy aged 17 was subject to an intimate search in 2019 where the police breached a number of clauses of PACE, ultimately resulting in the boy receiving an apology and £10,000 damages for the distress caused by the unlawful actions. These actions started with basic information being withheld such as the police officer failing to identify himself and informing the boy of his rights and ended with the strip search being undertaken without an appropriate adult present, in the presence of multiple officers, without authorisation from a senior officer and with no justification for the search recorded in the officer’s pocket book. Now I understand that things may be forgotten in the moment when a police officer is dealing with a suspect but the accumulation of breaches indicates a more serious problem and a disregard to the rights of suspects in general but children more specifically.

These two cases are the cases of children who were suspected of carrying cannabis, an offence likely to be dealt with via a warning or on the spot fine. Hardly the crime of the century warranting the traumatising strip searching of children. And besides, we criminologists know that the war on drugs is a failed project. Is it about time we submit and decriminalise cannabis, save police time and suspect trauma?

What happens next is a slightly different story. Strip searching in custody is different because as well as searching for contraband, it can also be justified as a protective measure where there is a risk of self-harm or suicide. Strip searching of children by the police has risen in a climate of fear surrounding deaths in custody, and it has been reported that there could be an overuse of the practice as a result of this. When I read the report, I recalled the many conversations I have had over the years with my friend Rosie Flatman who is a practitioner who specialises in working with victims of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) and other forms of abuse. Rosie has worked with many girls who have been subject to strip searches when in custody. She told me how girls would often perceive the search as punishment for being what the police believed was disruptive. That is not to say that the police were using strip searches as punishment, but that is how girls would experience it.

Girls in custody are often particularly vulnerable. Like Rosie’s clients, many are victims and have a number of compounding vulnerabilities such as mental ill health or they may be looked after children. Perhaps then, we need to look at alternatives to strip searching but also custody for children, particularly for those who have suffered trauma. Rosie, who has delivered training to various agencies, suggests only undertaking strip searches where absolutely necessary and even then, using a trauma informed approach. She argues that even the way the procedure and justification is explained can make a big difference to the amount of harm caused to vulnerable children in police custody.

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