Sadly, I must admit to writing this just as much in a personal capacity as a professional one. I am not just someone who researches stop and search policing. I am also an adult old enough to have had a teenage daughter who could be in a school somewhere in England and Wales being strip searched by a police officer on the grounds of possessing a small amount of cannabis that they do not in fact have.
And I despair at the fact that I wouldn’t know what to tell them that would protect from the traumatic effects of being made to remove a period pad while menstruating, bend over, and spread their legs and buttock cheeks for the benefit of strangers, as described in the Local Child Safeguarding Practice Review of the incident.
Too many children in this country have nowhere to hide from the ire of adults whose hatred drives them towards flagrant abuses of power. In the case of Child Q, the laws and guidelines governing the safeguarding of children proved no match for police authority.
PACE Code A, paragraph 3.7 may state that officers must not conduct searches involving exposure of intimate parts of the body simply as a routine extension of a less thorough search. But it still happened.
The College of Policing may advise that it is not good practice for officers to base their grounds for search on a single factor, such as the smell of cannabis alone. But they still did so.
Section 11 of the Children Act 2004 may require chief police officers and other specified persons and bodies to ensure that in the discharge of their functions they have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of all persons under the age of 18. But ‘having regard’ to the need to safeguard is not the same as actual safeguarding.
It explains why the Met have conducted nearly 10,000 strip searches on children in the last 5 years, including 2,360 on under 16s.
It also explains the disproportionate numbers of Black children strip-searched by the force: the review stated that in 2020/21, of the 25 children subject to ‘further searches’ in Hackney by police officers from the Central East Borough Command Unit, 15 were Black. Nearly every search (22) resulted in no further action taken. Black parents are all too aware of this. Many will have already had the talk with their offspring about the very real chance of ending up in the same predicament as Child Q, thanks to racist stereotyping.
So police forces must stop pretending that strip searches are a ‘safeguarding measure’ when in truth they can (and will) do whatever they like when it comes to searching children, regardless of the low find rate for illicit or dangerous substances, and no amount of revisions to the guidance is going to change that, which makes every instance a case of child molestation, pure and simple.
We also must call out the complicity of the teachers who not only invited the police onto the school premises, but also failed to fulfil the role of the Appropriate Adult when Child Q needed them most. Almost half of all child strip searchesplay out like this. The responsibility schools have for children’s lives is too precious to gift to an institution which ruins more childhoods it than saves. Having no police in our schools means killing the cop inside your mind too.
Ultimately, I am most sad for the fact that I cannot tell Child Q – or any child, for that matter – that this will never happen again, because we’ve somehow allowed the police the opportunity to do something no other adult can: violate children’s bodies. And they have the nerve to claim strip searches are a ‘vital’ power used to seize evidence, as if that justifies the immense physical and psychological hurt they cause thousands of children and their families every year.
Child Q is one of the most egregious cases of strip searches brought to the public’s attention. But it only happens because the conditions are ripe for abuse: when the safeguards (eg Appropriate Adult) are too weak, then children’s lives are ruined irreparably. If the police cared about children’s welfare, then they’d know that there is only one solution to these problems – abolish child strip searches (under 16 years of age at least).