Vulnerable children are being failed by Lancashire Police, according to a damning report published today.
The force has been accused of not providing a service which is capable of safeguarding all youngsters at risk of harm in the county.
The report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary says weaknesses were discovered in the police’s approach to child protection during a 10-day visit in October, “some of which are significant, resulting in children being left at unnecessary risk”.
And the force has been ordered to sort out its failings – some of them immediately – before a follow-up inspection is carried out in the next six months.
“We found deficiencies in a number of critical areas,” said the Inspectorate.
“While some improvements have been made, the constabulary needs to take further action, in some areas as a matter or urgency, to strengthen its safeguarding practice to provide better protection for those children most at risk.”
The report will come as a huge blow to Lancashire Police who in the past have been viewed as leaders in child protection by other forces across England and Wales.
“The findings are concerning,” said Deputy Chief Constable Sunita Gamblin. “Every child has the right to feel safe and protected and trust that they can turn to the police. The recommendations that have been published are issues we are urgently addressing.
“I would welcome them (the Inspectorate) coming back in six months time – or even before – because as soon as the inspection took place we started urgently addressing the issues, because we take it very, very seriously.
“What this report is saying to me is it (child protection) is everyone’s business, all of the time. I want everyone to know they all have a role to play in making sure children are safe and we spot the signs.
“Over the next few months I will be making sure we invest in training for all our frontline staff.”
While serious areas of concern have been raised by the inspection, the report does highlight the good work currently being done by the force.
“Lancashire Constabulary and its senior leaders are committed to providing the best service for vulnerable children,” says the Inspectorate.
“The force has taken steps to improve information sharing in each of the multi-agency teams, which helps to improve outcomes for children through early intervention and prevention activity.
“However there are weaknesses in the constabulary’s approach to child protection.
“Frontline officers do not always recognise children in need of safeguarding at the earliest opportunity, resulting in some children being exposed to the risk of harm.
“Many of the departments and supervisors responsible for child protection struggle to manage high levels of demand because of workload pressures. This compromises effective investigations.
“Overall Lancashire Constabulary is not yet providing a service which is capable of safeguarding all children at risk of harm.”
The inspectors say they have been encourage that following the visit in October the force has “taken immediate steps to address the issues identified”.
But they add: “We will return in the next six months to assess how it has responded to our recommendations.”
Amongst the weaknesses found was “governance of child protection is under-developed.
“Moreover there is an absence of any meaningful performance management framework, which is needed to ensure that senior leaders are able to reassure themselves about the nature and quality of frontline services.
“Some of the constabulary’s basic processes for
recording child protection incidents are weak.
“They often fail to ensure that risks are assessed and safeguarding interventions are implemented at the earliest opportunity.”
During the visit to Lancashire Constabulary the Inspectorate examined 79 cases in which children were identified as being at risk.
In only 14 of those the force’s practices were rated as good, with 35 assessed
as requiring improvement
and 30 were viewed as inadequate.
“This demonstrates that there is still work to be done in some areas of the constabulary if it is to ensure that the quality and consistency of the service it provides to those children in need of help and protection matches its clear strategic intent to improve,” says the report.
“Many of the constabulary’s weaknesses are based on its continuing difficulties in matching resources to demand.”
The report follows another scathing report in January which said vulnerable youngsters across Lancashire are being failed by vital support services run by Lancashire County Council.
Aspects of the county’s special educational needs and disability (SEND) provision were labelled “alarmingly poor” and “unacceptable” by inspectors.
Ofsted inspectors also provided a critical assessment of leadership, with “confused” officers leaving parents “bewildered” about how decisions are reached about their children.
A 15-year-old girl with learning difficulties was living in a care home and was reported missing on numerous occasions. When staff checked her computer they found messages from a 25-year-old man asking for photos and making arrangements to meet.
Yet there was no information on the police systems to indicate an investigation had taken place, no warning markers against the child’s address and there were no records of her having been spoken to or efforts to trace the suspect.
In another case a 17-year-old girl residing at a children’s home in Manchester had returned home to Preston and been assaulted by her 35-year-old ex-boyfriend.
It took 10 weeks before the offender was approached by police, during which time the girl had returned to live in Preston and was exposed to continuing risk from him. There was no probe into the assault and the suspect had not been arrested and interviewed.
What police commissioner said
Lancashire’s Police and Crime Commisioner Clive Grunshaw has pledged to work with senior officers to make sure the force’s failings are addressed.
“This report clearly raises a number of serious concerns and highlights areas that Lancashire Constabulary must urgently address to ensure the voice of the child is always heard and that they deliver the high quality service that children across the county need and deserve,” he said.
“Supporting children and vulnerable people is a key priority under my police and crime plan and since I created Nest Lancashire, this service has supported thousands of young people who have been victims of crime, ensuring they had access to the support they needed.
“But this report makes it clear that there is more to do and I will be working closely with the senior leadership team at Lancashire Constabulary to ensure the recommendations in the report are fully implemented and the necessary changes, which are already underway, are embedded within the force.”
Where police got it right
Police investigated a case of the suspected grooming of an 11-year-old boy by a man who had befriended his family.
The report says that as soon as information was received, officers immediately took steps to safeguard the boy and his younger brother and arrested the suspect.
Following a multi-agency investigation the suspect admitted a number of offences and was later charged.
In another case the force was made aware of a 15-year-old girl who had been groomed for abuse by a 24-year-old male via social media.
The contact resulted in numerous meetings which progressed to a sexual relationship.
As a result of swift police intervention and a multi-agency approach, other potential victims were revealed and links were established to other offenders.
The youngsters were all safeguarded from potential further abuse.