England and Wales: Strip search of children
A BBC File on 4 investigation asked all 44 police forces in England and Wales for information about strip search of children.[i] A total of 31 police forces responded to the BBC’s request, revealing that in the last 5 years, between them, they have strip searched 13,000 children (usually on suspicion the child is concealing drugs or weapons). It was also reported that black and mixed-race children are more likely to be strip searched. There are a number of high-profile cases that are being investigated by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), where it is alleged children have not been treated appropriately while being strip searched.
You may have heard of the ‘Child Q’ case and the ‘Olivia’ case where police carried out strip searches without following proper procedure. In the Child Q case a 15-year-old child who was incorrectly suspected of being in possession of illegal drugs was strip searched by police officers at school, without an appropriate adult present (under police guidance, if a child is strip searched, a parent/guardian, social worker or volunteer should be present).[ii] In the case of Olivia, an autistic 15-year-old child was arrested, and while in custody, after 20 hours, police officers handcuffed her before pinning her down, cutting her underwear and strip searching her in the presence of male officers.
The Children’s Commissioner for England published a report in August 2022 that indicated that half of all strip searches of children resulted in no further action by the police: the Commissioner commented that this ‘calls into question whether these traumatising searches were necessary at all’. She discovered that 650 children were strip-searched in 2020, including some children as young as 10 years of age. The overwhelming majority of strip searches were carried out on boys (over 95%) with under 5% of searches carried out on girls. Of great concern was that, of the boys that were strip-searched, 58% were described as ‘Black’ by police officers. The Commissioner also learned that an appropriate adult was not present in 23% of cases.
Alarmingly, although most strip searches happened at a child’s home or police station, in 1 in 5 cases, the police failed to keep an appropriate record of the strip search. The Commissioner has expressed concern at the lack of appropriate oversight of police practice in the strip searching of children and has requested information on all strip searches of children by police forces in England and Wales.
The Home Office (which is responsible for overseeing the police) says it will be issuing information on strip searches as part of its Annual Data Requirement. Police forces were requested to provide information for 2021/22 on a voluntary basis, towards the end of 2022. The information requested included details on the age, sex and ethnicity of people strip-searched by police in England and Wales. This reporting, we argue, should be mandatory.
The Home Office published their first report on November 18th 2022. Only 28 out of the 43 police forces provided data. The Home Office reported that 3,133 children between 10–17 years were strip searched in 2021/22 and more than a third of the children searched were black.
The Risk of Systemic Racism and Misogyny
The evidence on strip searches of children can be set within a broader context of concern about systemic racism and misogyny.
The IOPC has been reporting on institutional misogyny and racism in the Metropolitan police. Evidence has also been uncovered by a Sunday Times investigation, which raises concerns about the possibility of racism and misogyny in the Gwent Police Force. The IOPC is carrying out an independent investigation of the force. There have been calls by ex-crown prosecution head Nazir Afzal for a wider review of police culture.
In our opinion, no child should be strip searched. We are also concerned that some of these searches may be being carried out by police forces where there is the possibility of racism or misogyny amongst some officers responsible for carrying out strip searches of children.
The Problem with Guidance on Strip-search
The current approach to strip search goes against what is set out in the National Police Chief’s Council child-centred approach to policing, which clearly states:
‘It is crucial that in all encounters with the police those below the age of 18 should be treated as children first. All officers must have regard to their safety, welfare and well-being as required under S10 and S11 of the Children Act 2004 and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.’
A report recently published by Chris Bath has referred to a lack of clarity and ambiguity of the current PACE guidance issued to police forces across the UK on powers to strip search vulnerable children.[iii] Bath states:
‘The issue of discretion is central, and this is where racism and power come into play. Discretionary powers are so dangerous in the hands of an officer who treats black children and young people as suspects and not vulnerable and do not see them as children.’
In response to Hackney’s safeguarding review in the Child Q case, the UK Department for Education updated its guidance for schools which covers strip search. While many of the changes to the guidance, in particular the strong emphasis on safeguarding, recording what happens, and informing parents is to be welcomed, it still authorises the use of strip search.
It is not surprising that in England, organisations are coming together to campaign for an end to strip search of children, arguing that what the police are inflicting on children is degrading and dehumanising and the equivalent of state sanctioned sexual assault.
As Child Q said during her legal case:
‘Someone walked into the school, where I was supposed to feel safe, took me away from the people who were supposed to protect me and stripped me naked, while on my period. I can’t go a single day without wanting to scream, shout, cry or just give up. I don’t know if I’m going to feel normal again. But I do know this can’t happen to anyone else, ever again.’
And as the #EndStripSearch Campaign comment:
‘Nothing a child could hide in their body is worth them being sexually assaulted. Whether something is found or not, a child is harmed in a way that has deep ramifications for their mental health, and their future. There is no justification.’
Wales Specific Evidence: Strip search of children
The most recent Youth Justice Blueprint for Wales is meant to be underpinned by children’s rights. A Children’s Rights Approach should mean an end to strip search of children. It is a breach of children’s rights, a denial of privacy and bodily integrity, it is dehumanising and degrading.
The Welsh Government supports the National Trauma Informed Practice Framework and their policy focuses on the prevention of Adverse Childhood Experiences. This approach is threaded through the Youth Justice Blueprint.
There can be no doubt that any strip search of a child will be traumatic. Despite this, the strip search of children is happening in Wales.
The National Newspaper, earlier this year, asked for information using a procedure known as Freedom of Information request about strip searches of children in Wales. The Gwent force was the only force that responded to the request and reported that
75 strip searches were conducted on children aged between 10-17 years between 2018-2021. It was not made clear whether any of the strip searches were ‘intimate searches.’[iv]
In recent evidence collected by the Home Office November 2022 for 2021/2022, Gwent police force was reported to have strip searched 35 children, Dyfed-Powys 15 and South Wales 133 children. North Wales did not provide any evidence. Across the 3 police forces in Wales, 183 children were strip searched in the year ending March 2022.[v] Of the 183 children, 86% were boys and 14% were girls. The police custody data describes 81% of the children as white, 5.5% Black, 5% Asian, 2.2% Mixed Race and the remaining 6.3% were described as other or not stated.
We are aware that the Children’s Commissioner for Wales is working with police forces across Wales on strip search and the implications for children’s rights. The office has communicated that data has been requested from all the police forces but not all of the forces have shared data. They are however aware that children under 11 have been subject to strip searches.
The Children’s Legal Centre Wales would like to see strong action in this area we are calling on the Welsh Government, the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, and the Wales Youth Justice Advisory Panel to take action to end strip search of children in Wales as a matter of urgency.
Action the Children’s Legal Centre for Wales is undertaking on strip search of Children:
- Working with key partners to END strip search of children in Wales, we are hosting a global webinar with Youth Justice Legal Centre on ‘Strip Search of Children’, on Tuesday 7th March.
- Working with partners to gain a better picture of the incidence of strip search of children in Wales. Please get in touch if you have insights you wish to share.
- Developing a guide for children to help them know their rights under the current UK legislation if they are asked to submit to a strip search. Look out for this guide.
Author: Dr Rhian Croke, Strategic Litigation, Information and Policy Advocacy Lead, Children’s Legal Centre Wales E-mail address: email@example.com
[i] A ‘strip search’ is a specific practice related to the overall stop and search powers available to the police. There are two distinct types of strip search that are outlined under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984.
A more thorough Search, as part of a stop and search, is where an officer deems it necessary that the subject removes more than an outer coat, jacket or gloves. This process does not reveal intimate parts of the body. Powers for this more thorough search are set out under PACE Code A, paragraph 3.6
Searches involving Exposure of intimate Parts of the Body are where a person removes all or most of their clothing. They must only be used where necessary and reasonable, bearing in mind the object of the search. Consultation with a supervisor is always required. The police officer must be of the same sex as the person being searched and the process must be conducted in accordance with paragraph 11 of PACE Code C, Annex A. Full powers are set out under PACE Code A, paragraph 3.7. ‘Searches involving exposure of intimate parts of the body must not be conducted as a routine extension of a less thorough search, simply because nothing is found in the course of the initial search …’
- the PACE codes are too complex to understand as to which searches require an appropriate adult.
- parents are non-existent within the PACE search framework.
- there is confusion regarding what body parts are classified as intimate,
- there is misunderstanding with regards to what constitutes consent.
- there is a lack of clarity regarding best location for searches.
- there is confusion with regards to what constitutes appropriate data and recording.
- the IOPC’s position regarding the smell of cannabis, as sole grounds for suspicion is not supported by any legislation, Codes or Authorised Professional Practice.
- there is limited understanding of search procedures and rights amongst children, professionals such as teachers and the public.
- the search framework does not fully reflect national and international legal requirements for a distinct approach for children and intersectional disadvantage.
[v] No intimate searches were recorded.