Retired Professor of Child Health and Consultant Paediatrician Elspeth Webb posits that not only is Britain a racist, sexist and classist society, but it is also a childist society.

Content note: this article contains graphic description of a degrading intimate strip-search by police.

Today’s papers report a case of a 15-year-old black girl (Child Q) subjected, whilst menstruating, to an intimate strip search performed by officers of the Metropolitan police. This occurred in her school, with no appropriate adult present and no prior consultation with a parent or guardian. School staff called police into the school because, according to them, Child Q “smelt of cannabis” which they had failed to find in her belongings. 

It appears that the only reason this case came to light was because of the tenacity of the local Independent Child Safeguarding Commissioner who insisted, despite resistance from the local Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, that this incident needed to be subject to a Local Child Safeguarding Practice Review. These reviews are held when a child is subject to serious harm and safeguarding partners consider it raises issues of importance in relation to their area. The review can be read here.

Amongst other findings, the review concluded that school staff had an insufficient focus on the safeguarding needs of this child when responding to concerns about suspected drug
use, and that racism was likely to have been an influencing factor in the decision to undertake a strip search.

The phenomenon of the “adultification” of black children, both boys and girls, is a well-recognised phenomenon, particularly in the USA. It describes a bias in which black children are routinely perceived as older than their white counterparts, and thus subjected to more punitive and less protective responses from the adults around them. A recent notorious US case was of a 9-year-old girl handcuffed and pepper sprayed by police. It is arguable that not only was the decision to strip search Child Q driven by a failure to see her as a child because of adultification bias, but that school staff’s response was driven by this same bias; one which resulted in a failure to acknowledge her vulnerability and a failure to protect her. 

But there was more than racism occurring here. This is an extract from a letter submitted by Child Q’s mother to the review. It is heart-breaking: “Why doesn’t my daughter deserve the same rights as every other child, is this because ……. she is a black child living in a poor city area……. As you can see clearly in the incident, they have already pointed out the area … they made where we live a boundary. Our children have families, have names, have hearts and minds, their lives matter. They wish to be scientists, educators and mathematicians.” So, here was a toxic but all too common intersectional mix of classism and racism, made more serious and complicated in consequence of the victim’s powerless status as a child.

Gender is also at play; we must recognise the increased vulnerability of a menstruating adolescent, a factor that was at best ignored, or worse exploited, by these officers. The description of how the strip search was undertaken has a real flavour of a “punishment” search. This search included her having to bend over, naked, pull her buttocks apart and cough. She was taken out of an important examination for the strip search and then not allowed to visit the lavatory afterwards even though staff knew she was menstruating.

A real concern for me, as an ex- child protection professional, is that the behaviour of the officers in question is being dealt with as an employment issue, through the IOPC, whereas it is in fact a child protection issue and thus should be addressed as per the local authority safeguarding guidelines for “professional abuse”. These are guidelines specifically addressing the abuse of a child by those whose professional roles allow them access to children – particularly in health, education, social services, and the police. They are there to address the serious breach of trust and abuse of power inherent in such cases. This case involved what was essentially a sexual assault.

The described impact on Child Q is certainly consistent with this view. The review stated there “…was little doubt that the impact on Child Q had been profound…The repercussions on(her) emotional health were obvious and ongoing”. The police officers went way beyond what was appropriate, failed to follow procedures, and in the process caused significant harm. In my informed opinion people capable of treating a child like this should never have professional access to children again, regardless of the conclusions of the IOPC. In Child Q’s words: “All the people that allowed this to happen need to be held responsible. I was held responsible for a smell

There were many intersections acting to increase Child Q’s risk of an assault like this: race, poverty, gender, and her status as a 15-year-old – a child in most areas of the law, but an adult in terms of criminal responsibility. In England this is set at the obscenely low age of 10 – the lowest in the rich world. Switzerland is the only other country in the Global North to match this. In Scotland the age of criminal responsibility is 12. In almost all of the EU it stands at 14-17 years of age. As long as we continue treating children as adults within the criminal justice system it gives police a pretext to mishandle and harass children if they suspect that a crime has been committed. Those children particularly at risk are those with intrinsic vulnerabilities, e.g., children with intellectual disability, children on the autistic spectrum, children with Tourette’s syndrome, and those experiencing discrimination on the grounds of race, class, ethnicity, gender and so on. These factors can act together in a particular child to leave them in real jeopardy.

Article 39 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the UK has ratified, states that countries: “..shall take all appropriate measures to promote physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of a child victim of: any form of neglect, exploitation, or abuse; torture or any other form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment..” (my highlighting). Child Q was a high-achieving student before this incident. She deserves, and has the right to, all the help and support she needs to regain her health, her confidence, and her dreams. I wish her very well. 

At the heart of it, Britain is a racist, sexist and classist society. But it is also a childist society.  Children continue to be viewed as the property of their parents. If their parents are dehumanised, devalued and viewed with contempt, their children are even more so. There is much work to do. 

Professor Elspeth Webb, Retired Professor of Child Health and Consultant Paediatrician, Cardiff University. Find her on twitter @ElspethWebb

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