Thousands of children strip-searched by police in England and Wales last year

<span>Protesters in east London in March 2022 demonstrate against the strip-searching of a 15-year-old black schoolgirl. </span><span>Photograph: Sabrina Merolla/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Protesters in east London in March 2022 demonstrate against the strip-searching of a 15-year-old black schoolgirl. Photograph: Sabrina Merolla/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

More than 60 children a week are being strip-searched by police in England and Wales, with those who are black, Asian or mixed race significantly more likely to be targeted, new figures reveal.

Data from 41 out of 43 police forces shows that 3,122 searches were carried out on under 18s in the year to March 2023. In total, 68,874 strip searches were carried out.

The Home Office says strip-searches play an important role in protecting the public and that strict safeguards are in place.

But Mark Russell, chief executive of the Children’s Society, described the figures as “deeply disturbing” and said they exposed a “stark racial disparity” in the strip-searching of children, with black and biracial children “significantly overrepresented”.


For children, a far higher proportion of those strip-searched self-defined as being black, Asian or mixed race compared with adults – 37% compared with 23%. Less than half of all children strip-searched had their ethnic background recorded as white (45%), compared with 60% of strip-searched adults.

“Strip-searching children is a drastic measure and can be hugely distressing and traumatic for young people. According to strict national guidelines, it should solely happen in exceptional circumstances and always with an adult present – yet too often we know this is not happening in practice,” Russell said.


The figures, revealed in the aftermath of the Child Q scandal, give the most complete national picture to date of the strip-searching of children by police. In the Child Q case, a 15-year-old black schoolgirl in 2020 was ordered to undress after being wrongly suspected of carrying drugs. The search was conducted after teachers called police, while the girl was on her period, without her parents being contacted and with no other adults present.

The search sparked days of protests in 2022 outside the girl’s east London school and was said to have left her traumatised and humiliated. The Metropolitan police apologised and the Independent Office for Police Conduct has since called for a substantial review of policing powers under the laws relating to the strip-searches of children, to improve safeguarding and prioritise the welfare of minors.

The new data reveals that in the months after the Child Q case came to light, thousands more children were subjected to intrusive searches. It also lays bare drastic variations in the use of the power by police force.

In the Sussex police force area, which had the highest rate of searches of children as a proportion of the total searched – 15% – non-white youngsters were much more likely to be searched than their white peers, according to an Observer analysis of the Home Office figures.

About 21% of the children targeted for searches were black. Less than 2% of people in Sussex overall describe their ethnicity as black, according to the latest census data. Just over half of the children searched were white, compared with about 90% of the total population of the region.

Police forces in Northamptonshire, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk also had a disproportionately high rate of searches of children. In Essex – which strip-searched the second-highest number of children after the Met, despite it covering only the seventh biggest population area – 355 under-18s were targeted, with 4,461 searches conducted overall.About a third of strip-searches conducted in Essex were of children whose ethnicity was recorded as black, Asian, mixed race or “other”.

Some police forces failed to consistently record the ethnicity of the children they searched, instead listing this as “‘not stated”.

Labour’s home secretary, Yvette Cooper, said: “These figures reinforce the need for an urgent, comprehensive review of the way police powers are being used and whether safeguards are in place. In government, we would ensure that new mandatory rules and safeguards on the strip-searching of children are put in place as a matter of urgency”.

Dr Shabna Begum, interim chief executive of the Runnymede Trust thinktank, said the figures showed that, despite the Child Q case revealing how “incredibly invasive and traumatising this practice is”, strip-searching of children was still being widely used – and “disproportionately against black children”.

She described the practice as “inherently violent, humiliating and harmful”. “When it is deployed with such racialised disproportionality, the impacts reach way beyond the individual child,” she said.

“We need to strip the police of these powers and instead invest in communities where people have the opportunities and resources to thrive and flourish, rather than be subjected to aggressive and deeply harmful policing practices.”

The figures, published late on Friday, are the first to give a thorough insight into the national use of strip-searches for children.

In the year to 2022, just 28 forces provided figures. But they still paint only part of the picture, as they relate solely to searches carried out in custody, and the Home Office does not collect data on strip-searches conducted pre-arrest – for instance, after a stop and search.

A report by the children’s commissioner, commissioned after the Child Q case, found that 2,847 children were strip-searched pre-arrest in England and Wales in the four years from 2018 to mid-2022.

Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner for England, said that strip-searching was “intrusive” and “potentially traumatic”.

“In the rare cases it’s appropriate to strip-search a child, there must be an absolute cast-iron compliance with safeguards, and a child never strip-searched by a member of the opposite sex,” she said.

Assistant chief constable Andrew Mariner, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for stop and search, said it was taking action to improve safeguarding around child strip-searches, including “refreshing our training offer and addressing any regional disparities in the provision of appropriate adults to supervise these searches”.

Sussex police said all child strip searches were conducted in custody centres with an appropriate adult present and reviewed to ensure they were lawful. It said it had taken action to address “disproportionate policing” and improve trust within “ethnically diverse groups” and had recently updated its staff training.

Related: One of the biggest safeguarding risks to Black children is the Metropolitan police | Franklyn Addo

The Met, which conducted the most strip-searches of children by volume in the year to March 2023 – 929 – said that the primary reason for strip-searches in custody was to protect those being detained and the people around them, and that they were more likely to be authorised when people were suspected of weapons or drugs offences.

“We wish these types of searches were not necessary but sadly we know there are children in London being exploited to carry drugs and weapons for others as well as being involved in criminality,” a spokesperson said.

The Home Office said: “Any child strip-searched in custody should be accompanied by an appropriate adult unless they specifically request otherwise and the appropriate adult agrees.

“There are strict rules in place to govern how the power is used, making sure it is carried out sensitively and professionally, in accordance with the law and with full regard for the welfare and dignity of the individual being searched.”

Between 2018 and 2020, 23% of strip-searches of children by the Met were conducted with an appropriate adult present.