Research into practice

Gaynor Wingham looks at a study into the use
of police protection for children, which gives examples of good
practice and interagency liaison.

Since Victorian times police have had the
power to remove children from home, pending the prosecution of
parents for neglect. They have also had the power to give refuge to
runaway children for the same period. Under Section 46 of the
Children Act 1989, they still have the power to remove or prevent
the removal of children who would otherwise be likely to suffer
significant harm. A study jointly funded by the NSPCC and the
Nuffield Foundation looked at the use of police protection. They
estimated that (outside of the Metropolitan Police area) each year
about 6,000 children are taken into police protection.

study was the first to look at police records. It involved a
telephone survey of the child protection unit (CPU) in 16 randomly
selected areas to establish force procedures for monitoring the use
of police protection. This was followed by an analysis of the use
of police protection by record reading and interviews in eight of
the 16 forces. Towards the end of the study two focus groups were
arranged – one involving uniform officers and the other CPU police
officers – to discuss good practice in the use of the

found a wide variation between the forces – a nine-fold difference
was shown between the highest and lowest user. There were about the
same number of girls as boys. Ten per cent of children were under
10 years, and 8 per cent were taken into protection with three or
more siblings.

found that 75 per cent of cases occurred outside normal office
hours, nearly half between 4.30pm and 10pm. Police said that they
would have preferred social services to take action, but did so
themselves because something needed to be done. Social services
would sometimes have preferred the police to leave the child at
home and refer the case for further action. In some cases social
services made a referral requesting a police protection order, as
this was quicker than applying for an emergency protection

Despite Home Office guidance,
which states that children should only be taken to police stations
exceptionally, in almost two-thirds of cases this happened
initially. This “babysitting” was a source of resentment towards
social services because of the resources used and the time taken to
find alternative accommodation. Sometimes police used locked
facilities to avoid the use of close supervision.

Liaison was sometimes
problematic, particularly with uniform officers who had not built
up relationships with social workers. Police complained that they
often experienced delay in speaking to the emergency duty social
worker and this was a source of frustration. There was a conflict
in roles and expectations between the police and social workers,
with staff from each agency being critical of the other.

could the situation be improved? It appears that further discussion
of the local issues, including the removal of teenage children,
interagency liaison and the taking of children to police stations
could be a starting point. The study gives examples of good
practice, including recording, which was found to be poor on the

also raises the issue of the usefulness of police protection orders
and whether social workers should have similar powers. The
researchers concluded that the latter would change the relationship
between social workers and families, and doubted that granting such
powers to social workers would be acceptable to the community.
However, opening up such a debate locally and looking at some of
the issues raised in this research may usefully highlight the issue
as a whole.

– J
Mason, M Winn Oakley, D McGovern, Working in the Dark – The Use
of Police Protection
, Warwick University School of Law,

Gaynor Wingham is director of the
Professional Independents Consultancy.


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