Protective force

Winn Oakley, NSPCC senior research fellow, describes a study of the use of
emergency police protection, finding that many officers are reluctant to use
their powers and are inexperienced in their use.

police have the power under section 46 of the Children Act 1989 to remove or
prevent the removal of any child who would otherwise be likely to suffer
significant harm. A study of the use of this emergency police power has been
completed by researchers at the School of Law, University of Warwick (see also
Research into Practice, 9 May).

Researchers found that there was a wide variation between forces in their
use of police protection – the use in the study ranged from 28 to 314 in 1998.
Of those children subject to this emergency power, 10 per cent were under the
age of one year, 28 per cent one to five years, 17 per cent six to nine years,
29 per cent 10-13 years and 16 per cent related to those aged 14 years or over.
Overall, gender was approximately equal in respect of boys and girls, although
more teenage girls were subject to the power than teenage boys.

varied widely in the circumstances in which officers used the power, although
nearly half of all incidents involved children deemed "at risk"
through physical, sexual, emotional abuse or neglect. Alcohol and drugs were
major factors in a third of these cases. There were 12 incidents where children
came into police protection following police attendance at a domestic dispute,
and five of these children had been injured.

children identified as being "missing from home" accounted for 20 per
cent of cases. Children missing from local authority care accounted for over a
quarter of these, a massive over-representation given the size of the
population of looked-after children.

per cent of cases occurred outside normal office hours, with nearly half
between 4.30pm and 10pm when social services day teams were not available and
the majority of police child protection units (CPUs) were off duty too.

information was available, a third of referrals were made by family members,
most commonly mothers, and another 15 per cent by the child. Researchers had
not anticipated such a high referral from children themselves. The main
non-family referrers were social services.

officers had little experience of the use of police protection because the
power was not used often. Officers found it hard to interpret "significant
harm" and regarded the removal of a child as draconian. However, officers
were anxious about the safety of those children that they came across and
wanted to ensure they were free from harm.

and social services personnel
The unplanned use of police protection provides a very different context
for relations between police and social services than other child protection

child protection officers have opportunities to get to know and build rapport
with their daytime counterparts in social services, officers working evenings
and weekends have little opportunity to meet the out-of-hours social services
emergency duty teams (EDTs) responding to their calls.

CPU inspector did facilitate joint training between uniform officers and social
services personnel, including EDT staff, about the use of police protection.
Protocols between the two agencies have been recommended with suggested
agreements about response times and placements.

a year ago we were experiencing fait accompli on police protection orders and
we went and met with the inspectors around the whole county…. we raised with
them their thresholds in taking police protection orders." Social services

police and social services interviewees generally acknowledged a difference in
perspectives between the two agencies on the use of police protection. This was
particularly so when police attended at the homes of teenagers whose parents
were demanding their removal.

you have removed a child from a situation because you perceive there to be a
risk, and yet social services put them back in that situation because they
perceive less of a risk than you do, that can be quite difficult." Police

children go
Those children in need of medical attention and some young babies were
taken direct to hospital. However, despite Home Office guidance to the contrary
as detailed in circular 54/1991, the majority of police protections taken out
of hours resulted in the child being brought to the police station because
there was no suitable alternative to hand.

you have to say, ‘Is there not a better place that the child could be taken
rather than here [police station], he should go straight to social
services"’ Police inspector

the majority of these cases, however, police personnel, both male and female,
did their utmost to help children feel at ease. Children were taken to the
police canteen or recreation room or held in interview rooms or front offices.
Keeping children occupied or trying to reduce their distress was not an easy task
for officers. Children were often at the police station late at night because
their parents had been found to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, had
mental health problems or there had been incidents of domestic violence. Some
parents had been arrested and were held in the cells at the same police

acknowledged that some children were frightened about being at a police
station. Those caring for children would remove the jackets of their uniforms
so as not to appear intimidating. There were very few facilities for children.
Police canteens were not necessarily open late at night and officers talked
about how they shared their own sandwiches with children or of personally
paying to get food for them from McDonald’s.

three young children into the police station, settled them into the TV room
downstairs with a drink, chocolate and a bag of crisps." Police sergeant

all children were unhappy about their removal from home by police. Some had
requested police assistance and were only too pleased to have police
intervention. One young man had walked into a police station to ask if his
parents had reported him missing. He had been sleeping rough as a result of a
family argument.

officers acknowledged that the custody area was completely inappropriate for
children brought to police stations under police protection. Some children had
been brought through the custody suite and a small number were kept in
detention areas. A number of officers pointed out that the custody officer may
be the only officer available at night in some police stations.

rights and children’s rights
There are human rights issues about "holding" children at police
stations, and researchers felt better safeguards were needed to ensure
children’s welfare while they were in police protection or at police stations.
Researchers also discussed extending the "appropriate adults" scheme
to these children.

the Children Act, police officers are required to inform young people about
police protection if they appear capable of understanding. Researchers have
suggested that two age-related information leaflets be compiled and made
available to children and to young people.

a direct result of this research, the Association of Chief Police Officers is
now planning work with the Home Office to revise the circular 54/1991 on police
protection. There is already material on the Acpo website from the research
providing basic guidance.

About the research

research was jointly funded by the NSPCC and the Nuffield Foundation, and had
the support of the Association of Chief Police Officers. Initially, a telephone
survey was undertaken with child protection units in 16 randomly selected
forces, approximately one third of all forces, to establish procedures for
monitoring the use of police protection. An analysis was then undertaken of the
actual use of the power in eight of the 16 forces that were picked according to
high and low usage of police protection and to a rural, urban and metropolitan

all, records of 311 incidents involving 420 children were studied. Interviews
were conducted with 57 police officers. In addition, 13 staff from six local
authority social services departments, served by six of the forces, were
interviewed for their perspectives on the use of police protection.

Maureen Winn Oakley is NSPCC senior research fellow at the University of


J Masson, M Winn Oakley and D McGovern, Working in the Dark. The Use of
Police Protection
, 2001. Copies of the report (£20 including p&p) or
executive summaries (£4 including p&p) from the writers at The School of
Law, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL. Tel 02476 524938. See

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