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Shortage of child protection officers is impacting, HMI warns

Two forces must improve their child protection work, according to HMI.

Wiltshire needs to improve how it safeguards children and Warwickshire must change how it assesses children at risk.

Reviews by HM Inspectorate of child protection work have revealed forces are facing significant challenges in achieving successful investigations.

The reviews were carried out in February and both forces made clear significant improvements have been made since then.

In Wiltshire’s case, the inspectorate said there are long delays in both gathering digital evidence and in accessing third-party information, both of which weaken investigations and support for children most in need.

Assessors also found that there is a lack of specialist trained detectives and staff - so many officers tasked with child protection investigations are inexperienced and have not been given the training they need to effectively safeguard children.

But they were praised for their dedication and commitment to the children they are supporting.

Specific areas for the force to improve included how officers interview children and use their concerns to inform decisions.

Like other forces, Wiltshire also needs to make sure children in police detention are supported by appropriate adults and have timely access to healthcare professionals. 

But the force has a good multi-agency approach to early intervention and crime prevention. 

HM Inspector Wendy Williams said: “Wiltshire Police has some areas of effective practice in child protection, and there are dedicated officers and staff who are committed to keeping children safe.

"But, overall, we found that the force’s child protection arrangements weren’t consistently providing a good enough response to effectively safeguard children in Wiltshire.

“Encouragingly, the force has recruited to the full strength that its budget allows and increased staffing levels in some teams, such as the child abuse investigation team.”

She added the wider issue of getting response officers to move into specialist areas was part of the problems.

The force “doesn’t have enough detectives or specialist trained staff in its public protection department. Many frontline staff and supervisors are very inexperienced, and cases are not effectively supervised”.

The force responded with issued detailed statements from both the Assistant Chief Constable and Police and Crime Commissioner setting out comprehensive plans for addressing the issues raised.

This is part of the Engage work that is being supported by HMI and the College of Policing.

Assistant Chief Constable Deb Smith said: “We take our responsibility to safeguard those most vulnerable in our communities incredibly seriously and we expect to be rightly scrutinised for how we do this. 

“We have, therefore, already taken prompt and comprehensive action to address a number of issues raised within the report. This includes us establishing a dedicated taskforce focusing on re-setting and improving basic investigative standards to improve our service and deliver improved justice outcomes.” 

PCC Philip Wilkinson added: “The themes within this report are consistent with those identified by PEEL and work is underway to address them. I am confident the Force have identified the areas which need work and are progressing against each of the recommendations.

“However, we cannot underestimate how reports like today’s chip away at the confidence the public have in their police force. Residents need to know the police will be there when they need them, that they will do a good job investigating, support them as victims and ensure perpetrators are bought to justice as a result.”

Warwickshire’s assessment also highlighted areas for improvement.

The end of the force’s partnership with West Mercia has meant re-establishing some of its specialist functions, such as child protection teams. This has led to some challenges in service delivery and skills gaps in its workforce.

There are good working relationships with other agencies but the force needs to improve some of its responses to children including how it makes decisions about children at risk.

HM Inspectorate said: “Throughout the inspection, we found dedicated officers and staff, often working in difficult and demanding circumstances. The force has invested a significant amount of
time and focus on the welfare of its officers and staff.

“But in too many cases, we found inconsistent practices and decision-making. The force needs to do more to make sure that its commitment to improving the service leads to better results. It has the necessary governance and scrutiny arrangements in place to monitor the impact of changes and improvements it needs to make.”

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