Safeguarding and the child Q scandal

Sara Spinks 16 February 2023 3 min read
Safeguarding and the child Q scandal feature image

There can be no doubt, strip-search is one of the most intrusive powers available to the police. The Child Q scandal in 2022 brought the topic of strip searching children and young people under public scrutiny, particularly the failures in decision making by the officers involved and of applying practice within policy guidelines.

Child Q, a 15-year-old girl, was strip-searched after she was wrongly suspected of carrying cannabis at school. The search was conducted despite officers having the knowledge that Child Q was menstruating and without another adult present.

The review conducted by the City & Hackney Safeguarding Children Partnership not only concluded that the strip-search should not have been undertaken, but that racism 'was likely to have been an influencing factor.''

Home Office statistics show that in the year ending March 2022, 65,336 strip-searches were carried out by police forces in England and Wales1. Of this total, 3,133 were carried out on 10 to 17-year-olds, of which 57% were recorded as being black or from a black British background. Additional data obtained from Scotland Yard by Children's Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza also revealed that 650 children experienced 'intrusive and traumatising' strip-searches between 2018 - 2020 under the Metropolitan Police stop and search powers, with black boys more disproportionately targeted.

Whilst there are now some calls to cease the power of police to conduct strip-searches of children and young people, to fully consider this proposition it is essential to understand the current powers available to police and the rationale for using them in order to make an informed decision.

Stop and Search

As set out in the Police And Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984 code A, when conducting a stop and search a police officer can only request the removal of outer layers of clothing e.g. a coat, gloves or hat. Under normal stop and search procedures they cannot request the removal of a face covering. If it is reasonably believed that detainee is wearing an item in order to disguise their identity, they can be ordered to remove it. Police officers are entitled to put their hand inside socks or headwear if they believe something is concealed inside. If the officer wants to search further, they must provide a reason.

A 'more thorough search' must be conducted out of public view and involves the removal of further items such as jumpers, sweatshirts, Tshirts and religious headwear. The officer conducting the 'more thorough search' must be of the same sex as the detainee.

Strip Search

Governed by PACE Code C.

A strip search may only take place if it is considered necessary to remove an article that a detainee would not be allowed to keep, and if the officer reasonably considers that the detainee might have concealed such an article. A strip search involves the removal of anything more than outer clothing. A strip search must be done outside of public view and take place at a police station or at a designated police area where officers or anyone else of the opposite sex cannot see. The search must be conducted by an officer of the same sex as the detainee.

There must usually be at least two people present, unless in an urgent case where there is risk of serious harm to the detainee or someone else, whenever a strip search involves exposure of intimate body parts, there must be at least two people present other than the detainee, and if the search is of a juvenile or vulnerable person, one of the people must be the appropriate adult.

Except in urgent cases as stated earlier, a search of a juvenile may take place in the absence of the appropriate adult only if the juvenile signifies in the presence of the appropriate adult that they do not want the appropriate adult to be present during the search and the appropriate adult agrees. A record shall be made of the juvenile's decision and signed by the appropriate adult. The presence of more than two people, other than an appropriate adult, should only be permitted only in the most exceptional circumstances.

So as we can see, PACE Code C is clear on the specific parameters for how strip searches should be conducted which leads on to questioning how this policy is being implemented in practice. As demonstrated by the case of Child Q and the disproportionate numbers of black children being searched, clearly further examination of police practice has to be undertaken.

Appropriate Adults in school settings

The 2022 revision of the statutory guidance Keeping children safe in education places a new expectation that Designated Safeguarding Leads (DSLs) should be aware of the requirement for children to have an Appropriate Adult. Although the guidance doesn't expand on this it is clear they should not only fully understand the role but ensure anyone in their organisation undertaking this role is fully conversant with requirements.

Those acting as appropriate adults are expected to be an active participant. It is their role to:

  • Advise, support and assist the vulnerable detainee to ensure they understand and use their rights and participate effectively;
  • Observe and inform if rights are breached;
  • Assist the detainee with communication;
  • Protect the rights of a vulnerable detainee.

Regardless of the current debate, schools retain a duty of care towards a pupil during any level of a police search therefore, if a member of staff is to act in the appropriate adult role it is essential they undertake specific training to ensure their input is both supportive, effective and within legal boundaries.

Sara Spinks

SSS Author & Former Headteacher