Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Police procedures – or do we mean cultures?

The BBC’s sub-headline says that a report has found that the South Yorkshire police force “…. still needs to make ‘major improvements’ to some child protection procedures…” (My emphasis)

It is just another example of the deeply ingrained (but sadly mistaken) belief that getting it wrong in child protection is always a result of not having the right procedures. In fact the report in question (by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary - HMIC) doesn’t seem to make much mention of procedures. Rather it speaks of not recognising risks to children and limitations to “… the ability of staff to make good decisions about children”. 


An earlier report by HMIC (In harm's way: The role of the police in keeping children safe – July 2015) states that: 

“Police and inter-agency procedures are mostly followed but are sometimes undertaken as an administrative, rather than professional task, and there is insufficient follow-up action.” (Page 14) 

And warns that:

“… there should be a greater focus on the question of whether the tools the police use (such as assessments, inter-agency discussion, and referrals to other agencies) lead to children obtaining the help they need, or whether they merely present yet another layer of bureaucracy through which children are processed before help is provided.” (Page 14)

That makes it very clear that it should be the help children need that should drive the service, not procedural manuals.

In my view what went wrong in South Yorkshire, and in other police areas in England, and which led to the kinds of scandals seen in Rotherham and elsewhere, was not some technical failure resulting from poorly drafted procedures or out-of-date rulebooks. It was a failure of culture and attitude. Officers were not focused on discovering, understanding and meeting the needs of children and young people; they were focused on getting the job done and moving on.

Another finding from the In harm’s way report shocked me. It said:

We were surprised to find examples of children who had been accused of offences such as pushing a sibling, criminal damage in their (own) children’s home, or for wasting police time by running away from home. Sometimes, children were accused of lying or perverting the course of justice when their accounts of offences against them were disbelieved.” (Page 11)

That bespeaks of too many police officers having the wrong attitudes; of cultures that see children as problems to be solved, not as people to be valued.

I am glad to see that the most recent report now finds emerging evidence in South Yorkshire that “child protection has been prioritised and there is a strong desire to improve outcomes for children who are at risk of harm”.

That is good news, but it is not the end of the matter, nor, as Churchill put it, is it the beginning of the end – rather it is possibly the end of the beginning. There is a mountain to climb. Changing cultures is hard work and requires sustained efforts over long periods. All too easily there can be lip service and feigned compliance with new expectations and these too have to be overcome. And it is not just police officers that need to change. From the top down, we all have to focus much more clearly on discovering, understanding and meeting the needs of children and young people – not simply following the rulebook.