MPS leaving vulnerable children at risk of exploitation, says HMICFRS

The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) response to the criminal and sexual exploitation of children is not currently effective, leaving vulnerable youngsters at risk, a new report has found.

Feb 9, 2024
By Paul Jacques

His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) said the MPS’s lack of understanding of the nature and scale of child exploitation was a “significant barrier” to the force being able to tackle the problem effectively.

The inspectorate said there were serious concerns officers failing to identify exploitation or to understand the links between missing children and exploitation.

There was also evidence of a victim-blaming language among officers and staff.

The MPS acknowledged the findings were “deeply concerning” and said it has “laid out urgent plans to improve our service, so no child is left unsafe”.

While the inspectorate had found evidence of good work to protect children, including the MPS’s online child sexual abuse and exploitation teams, there were a number of “serious concerns”, including:

  • When children go missing regularly, the force’s response is frequently poor, with officers and staff simply waiting for them to turn up;
  • The force often using officers and staff to investigate child exploitation who don’t have the skills or knowledge to do this effectively, with supervisors also lacking the right knowledge and experience; and
  • Delays in starting and progressing investigations, and many missed opportunities to identify suspects and disrupt their activity, leaving children exposed to risk.

His Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary Lee Freeman said: “Children who are at risk of exploitation, or who go missing from home, are some of the most vulnerable in society. The police and other public services have a shared responsibility to look for the warning signs, be alert to the risks and act quickly to protect children.

“It is particularly concerning that the Metropolitan Police Service isn’t doing enough when children are suffering from, or at risk of, exploitation. The force should make sure that it fully understands the risks to children, and that officers and staff are equipped to identify and tackle those risks effectively, so no child is left unprotected.

“The Met has already committed to increasing the number of officers in some teams dealing with child exploitation. For the benefit of London’s children, the force should implement our recommendations in full and without delay.”

HMICFRS has made 11 recommendations, including that the MPS should:

  • Provide effective training to all officers and staff who interact with children;
  • Encourage officers and staff of all ranks to challenge victim-blaming language;
  • Make sure it works effectively with safeguarding partners to prevent children from going missing and find missing children more quickly; and
  • Follow all reasonable lines of inquiry to identify suspects in child exploitation investigations.

The MPS said it was a priority to ensure children and young people are protected and it is already making improvements since the HMICFRS identified two ‘accelerated causes of concern’ relating to how the service responds to missing children reports and investigations of child sexual and criminal exploitation.

Commander Kevin Southworth, lead for public protection at the MPS, said: “I’m deeply sorry to the children and families we have let down and want to reassure our communities that we are already taking significant steps to address these recommendations.

“We are putting more police resource into this area and retraining officers to have a better understanding of the complexities of child exploitation so we can continue our work to win back the trust of Londoners.”

The MePS said it is already implementing training to directly address HMICFRS concerns over a victim blaming language in some cases involving children  and driving culture change so officers and staff show more compassion and understand the complexities of child exploitation from the outset of cases.

Since October 2023, the Met has trained more than 1,200 child protection officers so they can work with children and their families to spot the signs of exploitation earlier and better support the most vulnerable across London.

In addition it has:

  • Trained 400 officers responsible for missing children investigations around the complexities of these cases so they better understand the risks of exploitation, how to safeguard vulnerable children, and target those responsible;
  • Strengthened resource in criminal and sexual exploitation investigation teams with 36 new officers already in post and another 36 more due to start in April 2024;
  • Seen a 50 per cent increase in child exploitation concerns being identified by officers where children are being pressured into criminality such as robbery or drug dealing, meaning officers have been quicker to recognise where vulnerable children may be being exploited. These cases are immediately flagged and escalated to specialist teams to fully investigate, while safeguarding those at risk and ensuring their welfare is put first;
  • Almost doubled the number of missing children being graded as ‘high risk’, which ensures they are immediately put to the top of officers’ priority list and ensures senior officers are more involved from the start to get children home safely and protect them from harm; and
  • Improved investigations and support for missing children graded as ‘medium risk’ who may frequently go missing from homes where they aren’t being cared for properly, acknowledging these children require a more bespoke response and help from expert partners such as children’s services.

The force has also piloted a ‘Central Vulnerability Hub’, which is a team of specialist officers and staff changing how the MPS responds to vulnerability and harm, locating and safeguarding missing children and people as quickly and safely as possible.

‘Right Care Right Person’ was launched to help free up more resource to better investigate missing children and suspected exploitation, getting the right agencies working with police and children from the beginning.

Officers will also launch the MPS’s first Children and Young Person’s strategy later this year, which will support officers to see children as children first and foremost and recognise their individual needs.

“The values embedded in this strategy and wider cultural reform will mean officers better understand why vulnerable children are more at risk of being coerced into criminal behaviour or at risk of being sexually abused and exploited,” the force said.

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