Lessons from Serious Case Reviews: Police and law enforcement

The NSPCC has analysed evidence from serious case reviews to identify learning. In this issue, we look at the risk factors and lessons for police and law enforcement professionals working with children.

Police often have significant contact with families prior to the incidents that trigger case reviews. They can be directly involved when young people commit offences, go missing or when offences are committed against children. They may also become involved indirectly, through the criminal behaviour of parents or carers.

Case reviews highlight that police need to work closely with other agencies to respond quickly and holistically to child protection concerns. Police need to be aware of the impact of abuse and neglect on children, and recognise the signs of abuse. They also need to consider how the criminal behaviour of family members affects children.

Reasons case reviews were commissioned

This briefing is based on more than 50 case reviews published between 2013 and 2015. In these reviews, children and young people died or were seriously injured in a number of different ways:

  • Killed by a parent, carer, partner or acquaintance
  • Took their own lives
  • Seriously injured following physical abuse
  • Chronically neglected
  • Sexually exploited
  • Sexually abused by a parent, carer or person in a position of trust.

Key issues for the involvement of police

The case reviews highlighted examples of good practice, but also a number of issues for learning:

Police-public relations

  • Some groups and communities were particularly reluctant to engage with the police. Some young people reported being treated like criminals, despite being victims of serious crimes.
  • Some families felt the police were powerless to protect them. Networks of abusers, and an inability to convict offenders due to a lack of evidence, meant that families who reported abuse were subject to intimidation and threatening behaviour.
  • Other families were embarrassed at having the police visit their homes, so avoided calling them when in need of help.
  • Some younger children felt intimidated by the police. Some felt they were in trouble because the police were talking to them.
  • In contrast, some young people reported having positive relationships with local community support officers with whom they had regular contact.
  • Bereaved parents said they valued the support provided by family liaison officers.

Understanding of trauma and abuse

  • Lack of knowledge about the impact of trauma meant that police struggled to interpret the behaviour of victims.
  • Police did not always recognise young people as victims of abuse. In a number of child sexual exploitation cases the girls involved were seen as consenting partners and blamed for putting themselves in danger.
  • On a number of occasions, police recording downplayed the seriousness of crimes. Domestic abuse was recorded as a nuisance, physical abuse was labelled as over-chastisement, and suicide attempts recorded as "childish".
  • In some cases there was a failure to take age and risk-taking behaviour into account when assessing vulnerability.

Focus on presenting concerns

  • There was a focus on presenting concerns such as young people's offending, substance misuse or other risky or antisocial behaviour without considering the reasons for their actions.
  • Domestic abuse cases were treated as individual incidents rather than a pattern of abuse. The immediate emergency response was often good but lacked follow-up.
  • Some young people regularly went missing from home or care, which led to the normalisation of their behaviour rather than an escalation of concerns.


  • There were examples of good practice when interviews were jointly carried out by police child protection teams and children's social care.
  • Waiting for specialist teams to become available sometimes caused delays in the interview process and the loss of evidence.
  • Lack of experience in speaking with children affected decisions about whether a crime had been committed and the quality of evidence gathered.
  • Children were often interviewed in the presence of parents or carers. This prevented them from being open about their experiences, either through embarrassment, shame or because the person present was their abuser, or might report back to their abuser.
  • Children were sometimes used as interpreters in cases where their parents did not speak English fluently. Children were inappropriately asked to translate adult conversations relating to child or domestic abuse.
  • On some occasions police spoke to the adults who reported crimes, but did not interview the children who were witnesses.

Focus on adults

  • Adults who had committed violent offences against other adults tended not to be considered a direct threat to children.
  • In domestic abuse cases police tended to focus on protecting the adult victim. Concerns raised by domestic abuse perpetrators about their partner's parenting were often ignored.
  • Evidence of adults was sometimes given more weight than that of children.
  • Police in a number of instances accepted the accounts of parents without speaking directly to their children.

Communication and information sharing

  • Police were sometimes the only agency that knew that young people were associating with potentially dangerous individuals. This information was not always shared with the relevant agencies, or with young people.
  • Agencies did not always provide the police with timely information about children.
  • Police did not always refer cases through to the relevant agencies. For example, cases involving serious parental substance abuse were sometimes referred to drug treatment services but not children's services.
  • There were some problems identified with sharing records across police forces.

Interagency understanding

  • Police "welfare" checks were often interpreted by other agencies as a sign that there were no safeguarding issues. What this check actually represented was a lack of immediate concerns.
  • In a number of cases police gave too much emphasis to medical evidence. The reluctance of doctors to explicitly attribute injuries to child abuse was interpreted as evidence that abuse had not taken place despite the police having information that would suggest the contrary.
  • In some cases, police were frustrated by the lack of urgency shown by social workers to their need to move fast to interview children and secure evidence.

Criminalisation of children and young people

  • Victims of abuse were arrested for minor offences such as breach of the peace or being drunk and disorderly, without consideration of the underlying reasons for their behaviour.
  • Looked-after children, especially those in residential homes, became involved with the police following incidents that, for other children, would have been handled within the family.
  • In other cases, an unwillingness to criminalise young people led to other children being exposed to ongoing risk.

Learning for improved practice

Keeping the child in mind

  • Police officers coming into contact with families should consider the impact that criminal behaviour has on children.
  • Enquiries about the safety and welfare of relevant children should be a routine aspect of police work when responding to incidents.
  • It is important the police carry out their work with sensitivity to build a relationship of trust and respect.

Taking disclosures seriously

  • Children's attempts to disclose should always be taken seriously and properly investigated.
  • Responses to disclosures should not focus solely on investigating allegations, but should trigger a more holistic assessment of young people. Putting in place support can make young people feel protected, and more willing to pursue an initial disclosure.

Speaking to children

  • Children and young people should be interviewed away from friends and families as they may feel too embarrassed or intimidated to talk about their experiences in front of personal acquaintances.
  • Interviews should be carried out by someone qualified to conduct interviews with children, ideally police child protection teams alongside social care.
  • Interviews should be conducted as soon as possible after an incident is reported.

Training on abuse identification

  • Police should be aware that children who are being abused may feel scared, ashamed, or loyal to their abusers. A reluctance to co-operate with investigations should not result in the withdrawal of protection and support.
  • Police should be aware of, and alert to, non-verbal signs of child abuse.

Interagency working

  • Police should be aware of the basic terms and procedures used by other agencies, and ensure that other services are similarly aware of police practices.
  • Police coming into contact with young people who take part in, or are exposed to, risky behaviour should be referred to the appropriate support services.

Records and information sharing

  • Information about incidents should be accurately and objectively recorded. Records should be made available to relevant agencies and shared in a timely way.

Making custody safer

  • Consider reviewing procedures to give 17-year-olds the same protection as that for younger children.
  • Police forces should have a separate facility for children and young people in custody.

Missing children

  • All agencies should collaborate to ensure guidance is followed when children go missing.
  • When a child goes missing repeatedly there should be proper follow-up.

Child sexual exploitation

  • Perpetrators need to be identified quickly, their activities disrupted and a case built against them. Police in England and Wales can apply for Sexual Harm Prevention Orders and Sexual Risk Orders under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 (amended the Sexual Offences Act 2003) to prevent further sexual harm. Home Office guidance has been published on these provisions (2012).


National Strategy for the Policing of Children & Young People, National Police Chiefs Council, 2016

Statutory Guidance on Children Who Run Away or Go Missing From Home or Care, Department for Education, 2014

Safeguarding Children and Young People, HM Government, July 2014

Police Response to Concern for a Child, College of Policing, January 2014

Guidance on Investigating Child Abuse and Safeguarding Children, National Policing Improvement Agency, 2009

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