Police ‘take up to 18 months’ to make arrests in online child sexual abuse cases

Posted: 5th April 2023

Source: The Guardian

Poor investigative practices and unacceptable delays leave children vulnerable, official report finds.

Police can take up to 18 months to make an arrest after becoming aware that a child is at risk of online sexual abuse, an official report has concluded.

His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) found that forces’ investigative practices are “often poor [and] unacceptable delays are commonplace”, leaving children vulnerable and allowing offenders to escape justice.

It said forces often do not properly respond to allegations or concerns about suspects, or consider the risk posed by them to other children, leading to “missed opportunities”.

“[Officers] don’t always follow lines of inquiry to find out who the suspect is and whether they are approaching other children. For example, we didn’t see any evidence of officers considering searching the police national database to establish if another force was investigating a similar offence with someone using the same phone number or username,” the report said.

In most forces, cases reported directly to police are dealt with by non-specialists with inadequate training who are unaware of guidance they should follow and what specialist services they should refer children to.

Very high-risk cases are often dealt with within a day but those deemed high, medium or low risk are often not responded to in the recommended timescales of a week, two weeks and 30 days.

The report highlighted several case studies where delays put children at risk. In one case, officers did nothing for 18 months following a report from the National Crime Agency (NCA) of two videos showing a nine-year-old girl being raped. This was despite the fact that officers identified the suspect as living with three children.

In the same force, more than 30 suspects who were living with children had their risk incorrectly rated as low because of inadequate training.

In another “very high-risk” case, no assessment was carried out for four days after officers discovered that a suspect – who had uploaded and downloaded child sexual abuse material numerous times – was living with his 15-year-old sister. Eleven weeks passed before the force took action and arrested the man. He was later bailed to the same address.

In another case, a force did not complete a risk assessment until four months after identifying a suspect as living with a seven-year-old child. The force also incorrectly graded the risk as low.

The report also found that forces wait too long before sharing information with relevant partners such as the local authority.

While the number of “image-related cases” being referred to police by the NCA doubled between 2017 and 2021, chief constables “are not doing enough” to get to grips with the scale of the problem, HMICFRS found.

It said the online safety bill could “significantly reduce” the amount of child sexual abuse material online.

HMICFRS made 17 recommendations which include chief constables making sure that online child sexual abuse cases are allocated to people with relevant skills and training and ensuring their force implements plans to deal with online child sexual abuse within the recommended amount of time with immediate effect.

His Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary, Wendy Williams, urged chief constables, policing bodies and the government to implement the recommendations.

“Online child sexual abuse and exploitation are heinous and insidious crimes that can destroy the lives of victims and their families, and policing cannot afford to wait any longer to improve its response,” she said.

“We are in no doubt of the commitment and dedication of the overwhelming majority of frontline investigators. But they are being let down by the lack of a consistent and effective national approach to tackling this issue.

“There is a lack of minimum investigative standards or training, and this means some forces aren’t responding quickly or sufficiently to allegations of abuse. Forces do not fully understand the scale of the problem, so there aren’t enough resources dedicated to these investigations.

“The online safety bill represents a critical opportunity to tackle the growing amount of child sexual abuse material available online. However, chief constables cannot wait for this to be in place. They need to do more now to understand the demand on their forces and the risks posed by offenders.”

Yvette Cooper MP, the shadow home secretary, said: “This damning report shows the total failure by the Conservative government to make sure vulnerable children are protected from abuse and it shows how wholly inadequate and hollow all the promises were from Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman this week.

“It’s clear the hard work of individual officers is being undermined by lack of any proper support or strategy from the government. This hands-off Home Office approach is totally failing victims of this hideous crime.

“Labour has been urging the government to take urgent stronger action on escalating online grooming and abuse for years, and yet Rishi Sunak didn’t even mention the issue this week. The constant delays and weakening of the online safety bill are completely unacceptable – once again the Conservatives are letting criminals off and letting victims down.”

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