Police fail to look into all child abuse cases

Child abuse campaigners have reacted angrily to news that an East Anglian police force is not investigating all child abuse cases.

Child abuse campaigners have reacted angrily to news that an East Anglian police force is not investigating all child abuse cases.

Too much work and not enough staff are being given as the reasons why a quarter of allegations in one area were not recorded as crimes, and complaints from children of being hit by a parent were being left to social services.

The damning report from Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) rates Suffolk police as "poor" in dealing with child abuse, making it joint worst of the 43 forces in England and Wales.

Today's police authority meeting will hear that the force has fully accepted the criticism and has been taking steps to improve its performance.

It is now changing staffing levels to meet demand, improving welfare arrangements for staff, creating a central referral unit for child abuse cases and drawing up a public protection strategy. A new head of the public protection directorate, Det Supt Tim Beach, took up his post last month.

The inspection report, based on an inspection carried out in May, complains that police were reluctant to record allegations as crimes. In the western area, a quarter of referrals were not recorded as crimes because of "heavy workload". In the southern area, police were at times leaving social services to investigate alone. The report says: "If there is no evidence of a definite criminal disclosure, child abuse investigators will not always participate in a joint investigation even if an injury is present."A child who says he has been hit by a parent is often classed as a "family issue" and the investigation left to social services.

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Michelle Elliott, chief executive of children's charity Kidscape, said: "They are in the Dark Ages. I thought forces everywhere know that the first priority is to protect children. We stopped treating things like that as a domestic issue 20 years ago. They need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century."

The inspection report says: "Staff feel overworked and routinely work overtime and weekends, with the inherent negative consequences on finance, staff welfare and work-life balance." One crime manager told staff to "knuckle down and get on with things" after they raised concerns about their workload.

Other concerns highlighted include:

around nine officers working on child abuse across the county when there should be 15;

a backlog of police checks which could lead into children being placed in homes without checks on staff or carers;

inconsistent training for child abuse investigators, with joint investigation training especially lacking.

Chief constable Simon Ash said: "It should be emphasised that there was no criticism of individual officers or the quality of their work…The criticism of the arrangements for investigating child abuse was fully accepted by the force. In fact, many of the comments made by HMIC were already known and were the subject of an internal review which was conducted throughout April and May 2007."

Peter Worobec, chairman of the Suffolk Safeguarding Children Board, which works with all the agencies protecting children in the county, said: "The Safeguarding Children Board is aware of the comments made by inspectors and has been working closely with the police to help them improve how they deal with allegations of child abuse."

Despite the criticism, inspectors accepted that the force was improving in its work to protect vulnerable people. It also received a "good" grade for its performance management and a "fair" grade for neighbourhood policing.

The HMIC report for Norfolk, published last month, classes Norfolk police as "good" in the area of child abuse.

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