In Brixton, children are growing up fearful of being targeted by the police, and subjected to unnecessary and intrusive searches, reports Martha Fairlie
More than 600 children who have been strip-searched over a two-year period by the Metropolitan Police have "been abused" as part of a "multi-agency racist approach", a charity founder has said.
New figures show that more than 650 10 to 17-year-olds underwent “intrusive and traumatising” strip-searches by Met officers between 2018 and 2020, with black boys disproportionately targeted.
Of these children, 58% were described by the officer as being black, and more than 95% were boys, according to data obtained from Scotland Yard by the Children’s Commissioner.
In almost a quarter of cases, strip-searches took place without an “appropriate adult” confirmed to have been present.
Ngozi Fulani, CEO of Sistah Space which supports black women and girls who've suffered domestic or sexual abuse, told ITV News: "These children have been abused. We need to call it what it is.
“These are our children. These are our black children. If they’re not safe in school and in police custody, where are they safe?"
'It’s not good enough, our children are suffering' - Sistah Space CEO Ngozi Fulani said child strip-searches - particularly among black children - have been an issue for years
Ms Fulani believes the data does not reflect the true scale of how often this is happening, adding that people on the ground "will tell you the number is much higher".
The Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza, requested the figures after the emergence of the Child Q scandal, in which a 15-year-old black schoolgirl was strip-searched by female Met officers in 2020 after she was wrongly suspected of carrying cannabis.
The search took place without another adult present and in the knowledge that she was menstruating, a safeguarding report found.
A review conducted by City & Hackney Safeguarding Children Partnership (CHSCP) concluded the strip-search should never have happened, was unjustified and racism “was likely to have been an influencing factor”.
Four Metropolitan Police officers are being investigated for gross misconduct by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) in connection with the incident.
Scotland Yard has apologised and said it “should never have happened”.
Ms Fulani said although strip-search cases such as Child Q's may appear to be a new concern to many, this is "something we’ve lived with for decades".
"Even though we’re talking about the police, this is a multi-agency racist approach because you can’t tell me that at some point, some adult couldn’t 'say, stop something’s wrong here'. One adult - that’s all it would’ve taken," she said.
“But there were four police, there was a headmistress, there was a Hackney safeguarding team - you name it - but they didn’t call the child’s parent."
“When you put a 15-year-old white or Asian girl next to a black girl or boy, the way that they are treated is very very different," added Ms Fulani.
"We need to get rid of this idea that we’re dampening it down and we’re doing something about it. It’s not good enough, our children are suffering.”
'It’s extremely concerning and they need to explain to us why they’re doing this' - Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza is calling for all police forces in England to submit child strip-search data
Law firm Bhatt Murphy announced in March that the teenager was taking civil action against the Met and her school to obtain “cast-iron commitments to ensure this never happens again to any other child”.
Since then, the IOPC has confirmed it is investigating four further strip-searches of children between early 2020 and 2022, and is considering whether to look into three more.
The law also requires that an appropriate adult is present except in cases of “urgency”, and usually is a parent or guardian, but can also be a social worker, carer or a volunteer.
But in 23% of cases, no appropriate adult was present, the data showed. Two thirds of these incidents (70%) involved black boys.
Dame Rachel told ITV News: “That means children as young as 10, 11, have been strip searched - their most intimate parts visually looked at - with no mum, no dad, no carer, no appropriate adult.
"It’s just not on."
The data also showed that the number of strip-searches on children increased each year, with 18% carried out in 2018, 36% in 2019 and 46% in 2020.
Overall, 53% of all the strip-searches resulted in no further action, which the Children’s Commissioner said indicates that they “may well not be justified or necessary in all cases”.
Dame Rachel said she is “deeply shocked” by the figures, which show that a significant number of children “are being subjected to this intrusive and traumatising practice each year”.
She is also “extremely concerned” at the ethnic disproportionality they reveal, with ethnicity identified as a key factor in Child Q’s ordeal.
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“I am not reassured that what happened to Child Q was an isolated issue, but instead believe it may be a particularly concerning example of a more systemic problem around child protection within the Metropolitan Police," said Dame Rachel.
“I remain unconvinced that the Metropolitan Police is consistently considering children’s welfare and wellbeing.”
Dame Rachel said she has submitted the data to Baroness Louise Casey, who is carrying out a review into standards at the Met.
The Children’s Commissioner’s team is also requesting comparable data from all police forces across England.
Charities have condemned the “shocking” number of children who have been strip searched by the Metropolitan Police without an appropriate adult present.
Iryna Pona, of The Children’s Society (TCS), said: “We are horrified by the number of children subjected to these searches and it is shocking that nearly a quarter took place without an appropriate adult present.
“Strip searches are intrusive and traumatic, and children are being completely failed if even basic safeguards are not in place.”
Runnymede Trust chief executive Dr Halima Begum described the findings as “appalling”, adding it “just underlines how badly our children are being failed by the state institutions there to protect them”.
Such “traumatic” encounters with the police where children are criminalised or treated as adults would have an “unforgivable” impact on their psychological wellbeing, according to Dr Begum.
A Metropolitan Police spokesman said: “The Metropolitan Police is progressing at pace work to ensure children subject to intrusive searches are dealt with appropriately and respectfully. We recognise the significant impact such searches can have.
“We have already made changes and continue to work hard to balance the policing need for this type of search with the considerable impact it can have on young people.
“We have ensured our officers and staff have a refreshed understanding of the policy for conducting a ‘further search’, particularly around the requirement for an appropriate adult to be present. We have also given officers advice around dealing with schools, ensuring that children are treated as children and considering safeguarding for those under 18.
“More widely we have reviewed the policy for ‘further searches’ for those aged under 18. This is to assure ourselves the policy is appropriate and also that it recognises the fact a child in these circumstances may well be a vulnerable victim of exploitation by others involved in gangs, county lines and drug dealing.”