Police: learning from case reviews Summary of risk factors and learning for improved police practice

Woman listening seen over shoulderPolice often have significant contact with families prior to the incidents that trigger case reviews. Police can come into contact with children in a number of different ways. They can be directly involved when young people commit offences, go missing from home or when offences are committed against children. They may also become involved indirectly, through the criminal behaviour of parents or carers. Police have a key role to play in removing children from immediate danger, investigating and arresting perpetrators of child abuse, and sharing information and intelligence about the risks young people are exposed to.

Case reviews highlight that police need to work closely with other agencies to respond quickly and holistically to child protection concerns.  Police need to be aware of the impact of abuse and neglect on children, and recognise the signs of abuse. They also need to consider how the criminal behaviour of family members affects children.

Published: April 2015


This briefing summarises the learning from case review reports. It is an analysis by the NSPCC Information Service, highlighting risk factors and key learning for improved practice.

Reasons case reviews were commissioned

This briefing is based on case reviews published from 2013 onwards. It pulls together and highlights the learning contained in over 50 published reports. 

In these case reviews, children and young people died, or were seriously injured in a number of different ways: 

Key issues for the involvement of the police in case reviews

The case reviews highlighted examples of good practice, but also a number of issues for learning:

Victims were often reluctant to go to the police for help due to fear, mistrust, embarrassment or a lack of faith in the police's ability to help them. Conversely, some children and families really valued the support and protection offered by the police.

  • Some groups and communities were particularly reluctant to engage with the police. Some young people reported being treated like criminals, even though they were the victims of serious crimes. Examples of this include disproportionately high levels of stop and search experienced by black adolescent males, and child abuse victims being given convictions for minor offences. 
  • Some families felt the police were powerless to protect them. Networks of abusers, and an inability to convict offenders due to a lack of evidence, meant that families who reported abuse were subject to serious intimidation and threatening behaviour.
  • Other families were embarrassed at having the police visit their homes, so avoided calling the police when they were in need of help.
  • Some younger children felt intimidated by the police. Some felt they were in trouble because the police were talking to them, though in reality the police were trying to ensure their safety.
  • In contrast, some young people reported having positive relationships with local community support officers with whom they had regular contact and conversations. These officers tended to have more time and contact with young people. However they did not always have the training or confidence to offer the level of support that young people needed.
  • Bereaved parents said they valued the support provided by family liaison officers.

A number of cases highlighted a lack of understanding of the impact of abuse and trauma on young people. Traumatised victims sometimes exhibited behaviour that, to the police, appeared contradictory or difficult to understand.

  • Lack of knowledge about the impact of trauma meant that police struggled to interpret the behaviour of victims. For example, they saw the fact that the victims of abuse returned to or expressed affection for their abusers as a sign that no offence had occurred.
  • Police did not always recognise young people as victims of abuse. In a number of child sexual exploitation cases the girls involved were seen as consenting partners. Girls were blamed for putting themselves in danger, or seen as "child prostitutes" rather than victims of sexual abuse.
  • On a number of occasions police recording downplayed the seriousness of crimes. Domestic abuse was recorded as a nuisance, physical abuse was “no-crimed” and labelled as over-chastisement, and suicide attempts were recorded as “childish”. 
  • In some cases there was a failure to take age and risk taking behaviour into account when assessing vulnerability.  This resulted in the extent of risk to children being underplayed.

Incidents were sometimes dealt with on a case by case basis without considering potential causes or cumulative impact.

  • There was a focus on presenting concerns such as young people’s offending, substance misuse or other risky or anti-social behaviour without considering the underlying reasons for their actions.
  • Domestic abuse cases were treated as individual incidents rather than a pattern of abuse. The cumulative impact on children was not always considered. The immediate emergency response was often good; however there was a lack of follow up. Children were not always seen and their welfare wasn’t always checked following incidents.
  • Some young people went missing from home or care on a regular basis, which led to the normalisation of their behaviour rather than an escalation of concerns. Reports were sometimes treated as a waste of police time, and in some instances parents were told to stop reporting their children as missing. This response led to a decrease in parental and child confidence in the ability of the police to protect them.

A failure to respond in a sufficiently holistic and supportive manner when children spoke out about abuse led to the withdrawal of allegations or compromised the quality of evidence.

  • There were examples of good practice when interviews were jointly carried out by police child protection teams and children’s social care.
  • Waiting for specialist teams to become available sometimes caused delays in the interview process and the loss of evidence. 
  • Lack of experience in speaking with children affected decisions about whether a crime had been committed and the quality of evidence gathered.
  • Children were often interviewed in the presence of parents or carers. This prevented them from being open about their experiences, either through embarrassment, shame or because the person present was their abuser, or might report back to their abuser.
  • Children were sometimes used as interpreters in cases where their parents did not speak English fluently. Children were inappropriately asked to translate adult conversations relating to child or domestic abuse.
  • On some occasions police spoke to the adults who reported crimes, but didn’t interview the children who had witnessed them.

A focus on the experiences, behaviour and evidence of adults meant that children’s needs and wishes were sometimes overlooked.

  • Adults who had committed violent offences against other adults tended not to be considered a direct threat to children, despite the impact their behaviour had on children.  Police were sometimes the only agency that was aware of the violent history of people in contact with children.
  • In domestic abuse cases police tended to focus on protecting the adult victim.  Concerns raised by domestic abuse perpetrators about their partner’s parenting were often ignored.
  • In a number of cases the evidence of adults was given more weight than that of children. For example believing the parent’s explanation of 999 calls as children messing about, rather than treating them as genuine calls for help.
  • Police in a number of instances accepted the accounts of parents without speaking directly to their children.

Police often had a unique insight into potential child protection concerns. However this information was not always shared with other agencies.

  • Police were sometimes the only agency that knew that young people were associating with potentially dangerous individuals. This information was not always shared with the relevant agencies, or with the young people themselves.
  • Agencies didn’t always provide the police with timely information about children. For example, police often knew about individuals’ criminal behaviour but were not aware that they were in regular contact with children.
  • Police did not always refer cases through to the relevant agencies. For example, cases involving serious parental substance abuse were sometimes referred to drug treatment services but not children’s services.
  • There were some problems identified with sharing records across police forces.

The use of different and unfamiliar terminology and processes across agencies often acted as a stumbling block to effective responses.

  • In a number of cases the police "safe and well" or "welfare" check was interpreted by other agencies as a sign that there were no safeguarding issues. What this check actually represented was a lack of immediate concerns. In other cases, where police dropped charges due to insufficient evidence to secure a prosecution, other agencies assumed this meant the accused did not pose a risk to children.
  • In some cases police were involved in interagency meetings which they considered to be strategy meetings, when in fact they were informal discussions. This meant police thought that other agencies were treating issues more seriously than they were.
  • In a number of cases police gave too much emphasis to medical evidence. The reluctance of doctors to explicitly attribute injuries to child abuse was interpreted as evidence that abuse had not taken place despite the police having contextual information about families that would strongly suggest abuse had taken place.
  • In some cases police were frustrated by the lack of urgency shown by social workers when children were in a safe place, such as a hospital, but the police needed to move fast to interview children and secure evidence. 

The lack of strong enough evidence to secure a conviction often left victims without access to the protection they needed.

  • Interventions were delayed because there was not a high enough standard of evidence. These delays allowed abuse to continue. Where victims were unwilling to make a statement little or no action was taken.

A number of issues arose when young people were held in police cells overnight.

  • Young people who were arrested and detained found the experience upsetting. In some cases very vulnerable children were held in a space designed for adults, without separate or designated facilities for children.  
  • 17 year old children in custody were treated by the police as adults, meaning their parents were not informed when they were detained.
  • Young people in need of, and in some cases explicitly requesting, support from mental health or substance misuse services were unable to receive assistance as available support was aimed at adult detainees.  

In a number of cases the police response did not focus on protecting the children and young people involved.

  • Victims of abuse were arrested for minor offences such as breach of the peace or being drunk and disorderly, without consideration of the underlying reasons for their behaviour.
  • Looked after children, especially those in residential homes, became involved with the police following incidents that, for other children, would have been handled within the family.
  • In other cases an unwillingness to criminalise young people led to other children being exposed to ongoing risk. There was some uncertainty amongst police officers over how to deal with young people’s harmful sexual behaviour. A reluctance to criminalise young people led to a failure to protect other children from their abusive behaviour.

Learning for improved practice

Police should always treat under-18s as children first, and make sure they consider their welfare, safety and well-being.

  • Police officers coming in to contact with families should consider the impact that criminal behaviour has on children, whether or not children are directly involved.
  • Enquiries about the safety and welfare of relevant children should be a routine aspect of police work when responding to incidents.
  • For many young people their first contact with the police will be as a victim or suspected offender. It is important the police carry out their work with sensitivity to build a relationship of trust and respect. For example stop and search should only take place, particularly on younger children, when absolutely necessary.

It often takes children and young people a significant amount of time to build up the courage to disclose abuse or neglect.

  • Children’s attempts to disclose should always be taken seriously and properly investigated. A subsequent retraction should not be taken more seriously than the initial allegation. Children and young people may not feel able to help with investigations due to the power their abusers have over them.
  • Responses to disclosures should not focus solely on investigating allegations, but should trigger a more holistic assessment of young people. Putting in place support can make young people feel protected, and more willing to pursue an initial disclosure.  Support can also decrease the likelihood of ongoing risk to the child. If a child feels unable to support an investigation it is important that they continue to be offered protection.

In order to get best evidence children need to be talked to about their experiences as quickly and sensitively as possible.

  • Children and young people should be interviewed away from friends and families as they may feel too embarrassed or intimidated to talk about their experiences in front of personal acquaintances.
  • Interviews should be carried out by someone qualified to conduct interviews with children. Interviewing and working with children in abuse cases requires specialist skills to achieve best evidence and ensure the welfare of children. Ideally interviews should be conducted by police child protection teams in partnership with social care.
  • Interviews should be conducted as soon as possible after an incident is reported.

Police officers should be trained to identify signs of abuse.

  • Police should be aware that children who are being abused may feel scared, ashamed, or loyal to their abusers. A reluctance to cooperate with investigations should not result in the withdrawal of protection and support.
  • Police should be aware of, and alert to, non-verbal signs that a child has been abused.

Police should work closely with other agencies to ensure that children are provided with help and support.

  • Police should be aware of the basic terms and procedures used by other agencies, and ensure that other services are similarly aware of police practices.
  • Police coming into contact with children and young people who take part in, or are exposed to, risky behaviour should be referred to the appropriate support services.

Clear record keeping and timely sharing of information is vital to ensuring children are protected.

  • Information about incidents should be accurately and objectively recorded. Records should be made available to relevant agencies. Information should be shared in a timely manner to make sure children receive the support they need.

Police processes and facilities should reflect the needs of children and young people.

  • Consider reviewing procedures to give 17 year olds the same protection that younger children are entitled to.
  • Police forces should have a separate facility in which to place children and young people in custody. They should have access to support services suitable to their needs.

All agencies should collaborate to ensure guidance is followed when children run away or go missing. In England there is Statutory guidance on children who run away or go missing from home or care (Department for Education, 2014).

Police response to missing children should be organised to ensure that when a child goes missing repeatedly there is proper follow through. Agencies should work together to build up a picture of why the child went missing and identify what support they require.

Perpetrators need to be identified quickly, their activities disrupted and a case built against them. There are orders police can apply for to prevent future sexual harm:

  • England and Wales have Sexual Harm Prevention Orders (SHPOs) and Sexual Risk Orders (SROs) made by the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 which amended the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Home Office guidance has been published on these provisions (2012)
  • Northern Ireland has Risk of Sexual Harm Orders (ROSHOs) from Sexual Offences Act 2003 and guidance from the Department of Justice ([2010])
  • Scotland has sexual harm prevention orders and sexual risk orders introduced by the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016.

Find out more about legislation, policy and guidance related to child sexual exploitation.

Perpetrators must be prosecuted so that victims can feel safe, have trust in the authorities and feel confident that agencies can protect them. Investigations should be made whether or not the child co-operates.

Find about more about child sexual exploitation.

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