Police strip searches of children are a “systemic problem” happening across the country, with black boys being “disproportionately” targeted, according to “shocking” new data.
Officers are conducting strip searches outside fast food restaurants and in the back of vans, without their parents, causing “real trauma” to the child, the children’s commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza, has told Sky News.
Dame de Souza – who fights for the rights of children, particularly vulnerable young people – asked every police force in the country to provide data on strip-searches after a black girl, identified only as Child Q, was strip searched while on her period in December 2020.
She was wrongly accused of possessing cannabis – with no drugs found.
Following a review by police watchdog, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), it was announced on Thursday that three Metropolitan Police officers face gross misconduct allegations over the treatment of the 15-year-old school girl in Hackney, east London.
The force will now write to Child Q and her family to apologise for the trauma they caused.
Speaking to Sky News correspondent Shamaan Freeman-Powell, Dame de Souza said: “Sorry is good, but sorry’s not good enough.
“The only good enough response to what happened to Child Q is if this stops happening.”
Dame de Souza described the data as “really shocking” – revealing how just 50% of cases involving child strip searches proceeded to further action.
“There’s a high number of strip searches, disproportionately black boys, and the police were not keeping the rules,” she said.
There were a “high number” of strip searches in London, with “terrible” results in the capital.
But Dame de Souza added: “It isn’t just London that is strip-searching too many children, not keeping the rules, and disproportionately strip-searching black children and black boys particularly.
“It was right across the country. This is a systemic problem. It’s got to change.”
Dame de Souza described the “pain and anguish” felt by communities, as well as anger and a sense of “hopelessness”.
She spoke to many parents during the course of her work, outlining one conversation: “One mother phoning me and telling me how her son was just coming home from doing his homework, had his earphones on, was standing outside McDonald’s, top of the class, and was taken off.
“There are clearly practices happening that should not be happening.”
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Child Q ‘a sobering moment’ for police
‘It’s like a dirty secret’
A woman who was 14 when she was strip-searched by police 20 years ago likened the ordeal to being raped during sexual abuse.
She described it as “barbaric”, telling Sky News she felt “humiliated” and “degraded”.
“It’s like a dirty secret, very few know about what’s happened, those I have confided in have all been equally as disgusted that a child who had been sexually abused was forced to strip on command for authority.
“It bares many similarities to being raped to be perfectly honest.
“I have cried many tears over this, this is something which has given me nightmares. It’s not something that I would ever want to happen to me again, I wouldn’t want it to happen to anyone.
“I cried the whole time, I cried afterwards and it made me self-harm afterwards.
“I felt so dirty, again like when I was raped.
“I took a shower as soon as I was released, the same as I did when I was raped. Both these events made me feel like I had absolutely no control over my body.”
The woman, who has asked not to be identified, said her parents were not aware of the incident, which she “still carries with me” two decades on.
“It haunts me to this day. What happened to me shouldn’t have happened, it shouldn’t have happened to Child Q.”
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‘There’s got to be a better way’
Police watchdog the Independent Office for Police Conduct is now calling for intimate search powers to be reviewed, with the Home Office and policing bodies urged to better safeguard children.
Dame de Souza said the review of the rules was “not a day too soon”.
She told Sky News: “[Strip searching] should be a matter of life and death – not a routine thing that can be got wrong so often.
“Strip searches are done under stop and search rules. That means the child hasn’t even been arrested.
“We don’t even know if they’ve done a crime.
“There’s got to be a better way.”
London Mayor Sadiq Khan described the strip search of Child Q as “completely unacceptable” and said it “understandably caused a great deal of public concern”.
An interim review of child strip searches by the independent Policing Ethics Panel led to cases in the Met being “more than halved”, with “significant” changes in policy, Mr Khan said.
However, he added: “But more must be done and I support the IOPC’s calls for a substantial review of policing powers governing the strip searches of children.”
Written by: Newsroom