Empowering Uniformed Officers to Fight Child Sexual Exploitation
I am no expert on Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE). I know how to identify the signs, I know to put on intelligence reports and I know what I can and can’t do under the law to immediately protect a child at risk. But I left wondering on #CSEDay17 if it’s enough?
If you’re a parent can I ask you this? Would you expect your 14 year old to be in the company of adults you didn’t know without your express permission or knowledge? I imagine the answer is no. But what do you expect the police to do? In particular what do you expect the police to do about the three 22 year old men we find your 14 year old daughter in the company of in some random flat?
Unless there is a current offence disclosed to us or obvious on our arrival we can certainly return her home. But she can be picked up the next day in a car having texted those same men, or they having messaged her and there isn’t a lot we can do about it when you call us. Sure we can put in intelligence reports, we can repeatedly organise missing person searches or submit vulnerable person referrals. If the child is in care we can perhaps pursue subsequent harbouring / assisting charges.
But is it enough?
Shouldn’t we be putting the obligation on the adult to ensure the child in their company is there with the express permission of the parent or guardian?
We talk a good game when it comes to CSE but when it comes to laws to protect the child we haven’t really made it easy for ourselves to undertake that duty to protect.
In Scotland we rely heavily on s12 Children & Young Person’s (Scotland) Act 1937, yes that’s not a typo, 1937.
It’s not a bad charge but it contains reasonably high bars to utilise to good effect and is of very limited use in the bulk of circumstances officers here in Scotland find themselves when they come into contact with children in the presence of adults whom are not their parents or guardians. It is mostly used against parents who wilfully neglect children.
Perhaps it’s time we craft the offence differently? Make it an obligation on adults in the presence of children not their own to ensure they have the permission of parents or guardians for them to be there. Something along the lines of:
‘It is an offence for an adult to have charge or care of a (young?) child without the permission of, or reckless as to whether the parent of guardian of the child has permitted them, to have such charge or care.’
Again I am no lawyer and greater minds than I can craft a suitable statute however let me give you a couple of examples whereby a law of this type comes into it’s own:
At 0200 in the morning officers attend a noisy party to find three 24 year old males in the company of a 14 year old girl who is not related to them in any way. The girl is known to officers as vulnerable. Officers suspect that it is likely that the young girl may be subject to exploitation but have no evidence that this may be the case. None of the males are stating they know the girl well and the girl isn’t telling cops anything.
Whilst passing a care home officers note a 15 year old child known to be vulnerable and a drug user get into a car with 3 males. On stopping the vehicle it is established that the 3 males are not known to the officers and have no previous known links to the child but an intelligence check reveals that one male has a marker for CSE. The child is highly uncooperative and the males are telling the cops they were flagged down and asked by the child to drop them into town.
Any of us who work in uniform know the circumstances I have outlined above are not rare events.
In both of these cases officers can safeguard the child immediately. But where is the deterrent for the males involved? Where is the immediate follow up action that the officers can take to dig into this behaviour? At the time they have been found/stopped they have not committed any offences.
However, viewing these circumstances as a parent of guardian of the children involved here are you happy with that? Is it good enough that these men should be able to be in the company of children such as this in the circumstances outlined, knowingly or recklessly doing so without your permission?
I’m not saying crafting such a statute would be easy but it would open up investigative options for officers to ensure we could really drive down into the behaviour of the adults in this instance:
- We have the option to arrest the adults on suspicion for the offence detected.
- We could provide search options for the person and any vehicles the child is found in.
- We could seize phones for analysis of text messages.
- We could provide police with powers to force entry to premises and open up search options where there is a suspicion that they are used as premises where children frequent the company of adults in circumstances that you would not expect as a parent.
- We could open up necessary and proportionate covert options to protect high-risk vulnerable children where we suspect they are being picked up by adults or attending premises where they may be exposed to exploitation.
- We could produce guidance for prosecutors and officers as to how the law is to be interpreted.
- We could send a clear message that if you are an adult and there is a 14 year old child in your charge or care at your flat at 0200 in the morning, you better have permission of the parent or guardian. It’s YOUR responsibility and the facts as they are know will be reported to prosecutorial services and ultimately the courts for them to decide what your intent was in having that child in your flat with your two 20 something mates…..
All of the above investigative options are already open where we have reasonable grounds to suspect that a child has been the subject of CSE. The issue is for many of our most vulnerable children, even reaching that bar is a challenge. Our hands are tied and the deterrent is insufficient.
Lets run the vehicle scenario again with these options opened to officers:
- The males are arrested on suspicion of having charge or care of a child without the permission of a parent or guardian.
- A search of the vehicle reveals condoms and lubricant purchased at a store two hours before the vehicle stop.
- The males are charged and held custody and sent to court on the original offence and receive suitable bail conditions.
- The phones of the males and the child are seized and on analysis communications are identified that enable subsequent sexual offences to be detected and prosecuted.
Of course multiple investigative strands open up to both proactively target a stop like this having used covert methods to follow up on the protection of a high-risk child and subsequently through the execution of searches where grounds have been identified post arrest. The potential to garner significant intelligence is also obvious.
As a lay-person I’m sure there are many legislative and practical issues around the introduction of such a law to ensure that officers can more proactively target CSE offenders.
If however, as a parent you feel the above circumstances are really not acceptable, and that CSE, as one of our most insidious, complex and heinous crimes needs cutting edge and aggressive tactics to counter, then perhaps the onus is on us within the Criminal Justice system to work out how to avail ourselves of such tools.