Metropolitan police officers tried to put off children from making complaints about alleged sexual abuse and privately blamed young people for crimes suffered, a damning official report has revealed.
Most investigations into child exploitation were rated as inadequate by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC). Of the 244 cases it examined, 43 were graded as good, more than half (121) as inadequate and 80 as needing improvement.
HMIC decided the situation was so dire that it told the Met to improve in three areas, helping to keep the force in special measures, and it said it would reinspect to check that promised improvements had happened.
The report found that in some cases children had been dissuaded from making criminal complaints, and that in the majority of cases examined, 100 out of 184, children who were victims of exploitation were not seen in person. “We also saw language recorded on some crime reports that indicated the sexual offences investigation-trained officers encouraged children not to pursue a complaint instead of offering support and reassurance,” the report said.
It found “many officers and staff in the force fail to identify exploitation or understand the links between missing children and exploitation”, adding: “When children go missing regularly, the force’s response is poor … Many officers and staff don’t understand the risk and simply wait for them to turn up.”
Among the failings was victim-blaming language among officers and staff, with 55 examples found from files recently examined, including a 14-year-old girl described as “seeking out sex with older men”, a 15-year-old girl referred to as “engaged in sex work” and a 12-year-old girl who had been raped described as “sexually active with older men”.
In other cases children were described as “making poor choices” or “placing herself at risk”. HMIC said: “This fails to recognise an imbalance of power with the person exploiting them or coercion that may be used to keep them away from home.”
The report says: “Worryingly, we didn’t see any evidence that supervisors or managers challenged this language. In fact, in one of our interviews with a detective inspector, they spoke of children being promiscuous.”
Another officer told inspectors of problems with the Met culture and said “missing children are seen as a problem”.
The Met said it accepted the findings were “deeply concerning” and claimed it had produced urgent plans “so no child is left unsafe”.
The report found that officers in Britain’s biggest force combatting child exploitation were overworked and lacked skills and training, and senior officers supposed to spot and correct mistakes did not. While there was good work done, the negative outweighed the good, said the inspectorate.
The report said: “Many officers and staff we met were committed to providing a better service but were frustrated by having too much work to complete.”
One desperate mother told police a man was grooming her daughter and offering her money for sex, and the child was going missing. Police did nothing for four weeks, the report said.
A 15-year-old girl who was found after going missing alleged she had been raped by various men. Officers arrested a 21-year-old man she was found with, then seven weeks later closed the case without examining the clothes or phone of the suspect.
The report said that senior leaders had told inspectors that the Met was a decade behind on combatting child exploitation. Another said of his colleagues: “A lot of people don’t see CSE [child sexual exploitation] as a priority, there’s a lot of complacency … [they] say it’s the child’s choice.”
The lead inspector on the report, Lee Freeman, said: “Children who are at risk of exploitation, or who go missing from home, are some of the most vulnerable in society. It is particularly concerning that the Metropolitan police service isn’t doing enough when children are suffering from, or at risk of, exploitation.
“The force should make sure that it fully understands the risks to children, and that officers and staff are equipped to identify and tackle those risks effectively, so no child is left unprotected. For the benefit of London’s children, the force should implement our recommendations in full and without delay.”
The failings are judged to be so serious that the inspectorate has added them as formal issues of concern, meaning the Met has to fix them before it can get out of special measures, known formally as Engage.
The inspectorate placed it in special measures in June 2022, with the Met highly likely to be still assessed as failing in June 2024. Freeman said the Met would come out of special measures when improvements were assessed as being “sustainable and embedded”.
Five formal causes of concern remain, three from this report alone. Some of those had been fixed or were about to be, Freeman said.
Kevin Southworth, the Met’s lead for public protection, said: “I’m deeply sorry to the children and families we have let down and want to reassure our communities that we are already taking significant steps to address these recommendations.
“We are putting more police resource into this area and retraining officers to have a better understanding of the complexities of child exploitation so we can continue our work to win back the trust of Londoners.”