Inspectorate says police child protection in Wiltshire not good enough

By Barrie Hudson - 5 August 2022

CommunityCrime

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) has highlighted problems with child protection in the Wiltshire force.

In some instances, crimes against children are not being identified rapidly enough.

The inspectorate said there were long delays in both gathering digital evidence and in accessing third-party information, both of which weakened investigations and support for children most in need.

HMICFRS also found a lack of specialist trained detectives and staff, meaning many officers tasked with child protection investigations were inexperienced and had not been given the training they need to effectively safeguard children.

Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary Wendy Williams said: “Wiltshire Police has some areas of effective practice in child protection, and there are dedicated officers and staff who are committed to keeping children safe. But, overall, we found that the force’s child protection arrangements weren’t consistently providing a good enough response to effectively safeguard children in Wiltshire.

“The force’s response to missing children isn’t good enough. The way it assesses vulnerability isn’t always effective or comprehensive, which means some crimes, abuse and child welfare concerns are not being identified when they should be. Throughout the force, officers do not always understand the importance of speaking to children, listening to them, and recording their views to inform the assessment of their needs.

“Encouragingly, the force has recruited to the full strength that its budget allows and increased staffing levels in some teams, such as the child abuse investigation team. But it doesn’t have enough detectives or specialist trained staff in its public protection department. Many frontline staff and supervisors are very inexperienced, and cases are not effectively supervised.

“We have made a series of recommendations which, if acted on, will help improve outcomes for children in Wiltshire. We will monitor the force closely to oversee its progress.”

The inspectorate said specific areas for the force to improve included:

- Improving the capacity and capability of investigators and supervisors to respond effectively to vulnerability.

- Speaking to children, recording their behaviour and demeanour, listening to their concerns and views, and using that information to make decisions about their welfare.

- Reducing investigation delays.

- Supervising incidents and investigations more consistently to make sure opportunities are pursued to help children.

- Making sure children in police detention are supported by appropriate adults and have timely access to healthcare professionals.

However, the inspectorate also found that officers and staff working on child protection were committed and dedicated, and that the force recognised the risk to children from online sexual abuse and safeguarded them effectively.

Earlier this year, the inspectorate moved Wiltshire Police into its enhanced monitoring process, Engage, which provides additional scrutiny and support. It is one of six forces under such special measures.

At the time, Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary Wendy Williams said: "I have serious concerns about Wiltshire Police's performance, particularly how it responds to the public, protects vulnerable people and makes use of its resources."

In the child protection-related report, HMICFRS said specific areas for the force to improve included:

- Improving the capacity and capability of investigators and supervisors to respond effectively to vulnerability.

- Speaking to children, recording their behaviour and demeanour, listening to their concerns and views, and using that information to make decisions about their welfare.

- Reducing investigation delays.

- Supervising incidents and investigations more consistently to make sure opportunities are pursued to help children.

- Making sure children in police detention are supported by appropriate adults and have timely access to healthcare professionals.

Wiltshire Police Assistant Chief Constable Deb Smith, the force’s senior lead on vulnerability, said: “Protecting children is one of the most important things that we do and every child should grow up protected from harm. 

“We take our responsibility to safeguard those most vulnerable in our communities incredibly seriously and we expect to be rightly scrutinised for how we do this. 

“We acknowledge the findings of this inspection and accept the recommendations outlined in this report. 

“However, it is important to state that many of the areas of concern raised within this report are aligned to  those outlined in our recent HMICFRS PEEL inspection, which concluded less than a month prior to this inspection.  

“We have, therefore, already taken prompt and comprehensive action to address a number of issues raised within the report. This includes us establishing a dedicated taskforce focusing on re-setting and improving basic investigative standards to improve our service and deliver improved justice outcomes. 

“We’ve also focused on delivering enhanced training to our front line officers, our call centre staff and their supervisors, specifically on identifying vulnerability and risk. 

“The Chief Constable has been clear that improving service delivery is his highest priority and that we will be relentless in our focus on accelerating our work to do what is needed to improve our service.” 

The force pointed out that the inspection found a number of positive areas of practice including:

- Clear prioritisation of child abuse investigations and improvements to the way the force investigated online sexual abuse of children, resulting  in a significant reduction of cases being managed by the Child Internet Exploitation Team (CIET) due to increasing staffing and additional training.

- Officers always taking children to appropriate places of safety – no incidents were found of officers taking children into police stations.

- Acting quickly to arrest offenders, seize digital evidence, and protect children. 

- Having a good multi-agency approach to early intervention and crime prevention. 

- Having good partnership working in terms of engaging with and contributing to statutory partnerships to provide multi-agency governance to safeguard children. 

- Having good facilities for interviewing children and vulnerable witnesses.

- Child Abuse Investigation Team (CAIT) officers having a good relationship with crown prosecutors and being highly committed and passionate about their work.

- Good early communication between frontline officers at incidents, and officers making timely referrals to Children’s Social Care - in every case reviewed, there were records of prompt and effective liaison with emergency duty social workers to reduce delays in jointly safeguarding the children. 

ACC Smith added: “The accelerated improvement work we are currently undertaking will be evidenced in the action plan we will now develop and provide to HMICFRS prior to their return visit to Wiltshire within six months. 

“As we said following the publication of our HMICFRS PEEL inspection report last month, we accept that we have work to do in order to build upon and maintain the trust and confidence our communities have in us. 

“We will be focused in ensuring we achieve this so that we can ensure we provide the service the public expect and deserve.” 

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