‘……………..BY SION MORGAN
South Wales Police have been criticised over its record on child sexual exploitation by the Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC)
South Wales Police failed to investigate a group of men who had sexually exploited a 15-year-old girl for four years, according to a police watchdog.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) warned the force, which police’s two biggest cities Cardiff and Swansea, that it must reassess its approach to child protection after inspectors found “concerning examples” where its service fell short.
South Wales Police said it is already addressing HMIC’s recommendations. It has commissioned its own review and developing a joint action plan while it “continues to embed the actions needed now.”
40 forms… but no investigation
In her report, HM Inspector of Constabulary Drusilla Sharpling CBE said South Wales Police has “much more to do” to understand the nature and extent of child sexual exploitation in the communities it serves.
She added: “We were concerned to find a particular case of a 15-year-old girl who was sexually exploited by men over a four-year period.
“Despite over 40 child protection forms having been completed, there had been no investigation to identify the men and protect other children.
“The quality and timeliness of investigations also needs to be improved.
“We found examples of serious cases, such as rape and sexual assault that were dealt with by non-specialist officers.
“We also found a case concerning the rape of a 15-year-old girl by a pupil at her school, and although the initial response was good, the girl was not interviewed for five months.”
The suspect in the 15-year-old girl’s rape case was not arrested for a further two months and, at the time of the inspection, remained on bail.
In half of cases examined, South Wales Police’s response was ‘inadequate’
Half of the 16 cases involving child sexual exploitation examined by HMIC were found to be “inadequate”.
In another case police failed to investigate or identify a suspect accused of enticing school pupils into posting inappropriate sexual images of themselves on social media, despite officers having an email address for the man.
The report into child protection work carried out by South Wales Police follows an inspection carried out earlier this year.
Inspectors found a “lack of understanding” regarding the extent of child sexual exploitation and an “inconsistent response across the force area”.
Early intervention and long-term inter-agency planning for children who regularly go missing from home was described as “ineffective” while enquiries and investigations were undertaken by “insufficiently skilled and knowledgeable staff” while children were being unnecessarily detained in police custody overnight.
Ms Sharpling added: “We have asked South Wales Police to provide us with an action plan within six weeks setting out how it will respond to our recommendations.”
Staff were ‘committed’
Despite its shortcomings, South Wales Police was found to carry out its duty to protect children well in a number of other areas.
In particular inspectors were pleased to find “a clear commitment to improving services for children in need of protection”.
Staff responsible for managing child abuse investigations were described as “highly committed, hard working, knowledgeable and dedicated to providing the best possible outcomes” while officers “responded quickly and undertook thorough initial enquires about the immediate safety of children”.
The force was also praised for its good management of registered sex offenders and a strong commitment to working in partnership.
Ms Sharpling said: “South Wales Police is clearly committed to improving child protection services.
“We were pleased to find examples where the welfare of children had been of the upmost priority for officers.
“In cases where the concern was serious and immediately recognised as a child protection matter, the approach to the child or parents (or social worker when the parent was a suspect) was carefully considered, and the best ways to engage with the child were explored.
“This sensitive approach resulted in stronger relationships between the child and police.
“The force has recognised that its response to child sexual exploitation is underdeveloped and is taking steps to address this.”
South Wales Police: Action has been taken
South Wales Police Assistant Chief Constable Nikki Holland said: “Whilst we cannot comment in detail about the cases (mentioned in the report), because they are live investigations, we can confirm that appropriate actions had already been taken and arrests had been made prior to the HMIC report being released.
“South Wales Police is no different to any force in terms of needing to tackle issues related to demand, capacity and resources. The HMIC has identified a number of areas that need addressing and we have now set up a programme of action to tackle these.
“A lot of the areas identified in this report have already been rectified but the challenges we face are mirrored by every force and the best way to resolve problems in relation to child protection is through a successful multi-agency approach. I am pleased to say that we have an excellent relationship with our key partners and together we are heading in the right direction.
“This force is completely committed and dedicated to child protection and it remains an absolute priority which we are determined to enforce to the best of our ability.”
Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner Sophie Howe added: “We are taking forward a number of actions following our review into Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation in South Wales.
“HMIC have identified some excellent practice including our new system to help identify children at risk and the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhondda Cynon Taf, which enables us to share information with all agencies to protect vulnerable children and adults.
“But we have more work to do internally and with our partners.
“It will be essential to work with care providers and those who inspect them to support their approach to identifying children at risk and responding when they go missing from care.
“We need local authorities to keep working with us to put in place more multi-agency safeguarding hubs, and we need everyone to contribute to our understanding of where and when children are at risk so we can all intervene at an earlier stage.”