Phones that may hold child abuse images returned to suspects

Jamie Grierson Home affairs correspondent
Photograph: Hayoung Jeon/EPA

Police are giving back to suspected paedophiles phones and computers that possibly hold child abuse images because they do not have the time or technology to search the devices, a report says.

Prosecutions are being dropped because the technology that helps officers quickly scan devices to determine the likelihood of indecent images being present is not consistently available across forces, a policing watchdog finds.

The limited capacity of forces to conduct many costly and time-consuming digital forensic examinations is also hampering investigations into suspects who have downloaded indecent images of children, says HMICFRS Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services.

But the government’s pledge to restore 20,000 police to the streets of England and Wales will not be enough to match the increasing demand placed on officers to protect children, the inspectorate has warned.

In a wide-ranging report on child protection efforts by police forces in England and Wales, Wendy Williams, inspector of constabulary, said: “The demands faced by the police are increasing constantly. The police, along with other public-sector agencies, are facing increasing challenges in meeting these demands.

“The current reactive approach of the police and partners, which too often places an excessive emphasis on the management of demand as opposed to the reduction of risk, is unsustainable.

“Despite the promise of additional officers, the police cannot hope to manage the increasing demand and complexity that defines the responsibility to protect children alone. Police leaders recognise this, but greater consistency and pace is needed to ensure that children are given the opportunities they deserve to thrive.”

The report says children are being put at risk by lengthy delays in investigating suspects who have downloaded indecent images of children.

In one case inspectors found that 100 days had passed since police were notified that a 10-year-old girl had been receiving indecent images from three older men via social media. During that time there was no effort to identify and trace the perpetrators.

Inspectors said that the level of demand affecting officers routinely led to delays and drift leaving children at risk from suspects “for lengthy periods of time”.

Safeguarding planning for children linked to a suspected perpetrator is routinely deferred until a criminal investigation has begun, the report says.

The delay is worsened by the lack of technology available to officers to search devices for child abuse images. The technology, known as digital triage, allows police and staff to make better, more informed, decisions and only submit devices for full examination where the probability of indecent images is highest.

“In some of the most concerning cases we have found that in addition to delays a lack of technology has resulted in prosecutions being discontinued, and, perhaps most troublingly of all, devices returned that may have contained indecent images,” the report says.

In the damning assessment, the HMICFRS report found:

  • Officers were not looking into the wider circumstances or risks faced by children reported as missing, including cases where children had been reported missing more than 30 times.

  • Children were still likely to be prosecuted despite clear evidence of coercion in too many areas, including for offences relating to county lines (drugs), so reducing the chances of safeguarding measures being put in place.

  • Too many children were being detained in police stations.

  • Risk to children in domestic abuse cases was not properly or well enough understood.

  • The system of child protection was unsustainable and more resourcing was needed, not just in policing, to help support and protect vulnerable children.

Williams added: “To achieve the best possible outcomes for children leaders in all agencies need to come together to form clear local strategies to reduce risk and protect children at risk from abuse and exploitation.

“But to be truly effective more radical approaches are required. Despite the efforts of dedicated staff in every force and partnership the current approach to risk and vulnerability places too much emphasis on addressing immediate risks and the symptoms of vulnerability. A new model is required that considers the root causes of vulnerability and take steps to address them.”