Vulnerable girl's '˜nightmare' time in custody prompts policy change

A call handler and 13 police officers were flagged for misconduct investigation over the treatment of a vulnerable 11 year-old-girl in Horsham and Crawley.

Wednesday, 8th June 2016, 10:32 am
Updated Thursday, 7th June 2018, 10:54 pm
Assistant Chief Constable Robin Smith of Sussex Police SUS-150409-093423001

An Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) report said the girl - referred to as Child H to protect her identity - had a ‘neurological disability which can cause challenging behaviour, with the potential to harm herself and others’.

She spent a total of more than 60 hours in Horsham and Crawley police stations, including two nights in the cells, after being arrested three times for minor offences, and being detained once under the Mental Health Act.

Her condition had not been diagnosed, but her mother had told officers she had an autism spectrum disorder.

DM157280a.jpg Katy Bourne, Police and Crime Commissioner. Photo by Derek Martin SUS-150824-165157008

“The IPCC found Sussex Police failed to ensure an appropriate adult - a parent, guardian or social worker - was present to support Child H in custody,” said a statement from the commission.

“Police were also found to have used handcuffs, leg restraints and spit hoods on Child H, yet on a number of occasions did not record any rationale for their use of force.

“The investigation found these failings were in part due to Sussex Police’s training and force policy. Shortly after the IPCC investigation started, Sussex Police took early steps to establish appropriate protocols with Child H’s family to ensure lessons were learned and changes implemented in any future dealings with her.

“The IPCC’s view was that there was a case to answer for misconduct for six custody sergeants for failing to ensure an appropriate adult was present, one of whom also failed to transfer relevant information onto the risk assessment; another custody sergeant for failing to ensure that Child H was dealt with expediently whilst in custody; and two police constables for their restraint of Child H in handcuffs.

“Conduct issues identified during the course of the investigation have been addressed by Sussex Police through management advice.

“Two further officers - a custody sergeant and an inspector - who in the IPCC’s view would have had a case to answer for misconduct for failing to ensure an appropriate adult was present, have since retired.

“No further action was taken against a former front desk enquiry officer who the IPCC believed had a case to answer for misconduct for failing to treat Child H’s mother according to her needs; a call handler for failing to log sufficient information about Child H’s condition; and against a police constable who, in the view of the investigator, had a case to answer for misconduct.”

IPCC Commissioner Jennifer Izekor said: “This was a complex investigation, which found Sussex Police officers failed to respond effectively to the needs of a vulnerable child.

“While it is clear Child H had significant behavioural problems arising from her disability, Sussex Police and, indeed other agencies which were – or should have been - involved, did not appear to have the skills and capacity to respond to her effectively. The situation was exacerbated by the lack of understanding of Child H’s complex needs.

“The IPCC understands it is not possible to train each and every frontline officer to recognise and understand the complexities of all emotional or behavioural issues. But it is important that officers responding to young people with mental health, emotional and behavioural difficulties have a basic understanding of their needs and how best to deal them.

“I was pleased that shortly after we began our investigation the force engaged with Child H’s family to establish appropriate protocols to ensure that lessons were learned and changes implemented in any future dealings with her.

“We welcome the changes Sussex Police has made to its training and processes since the start of our investigation.”

Mother and solicitors’ reaction:

A statement from the girl’s mother, released by her lawyers at Irwin Mitchell, said: “My daughter’s contact with the police in 2012 was nothing short of a nightmare for both of us.

“At the time her disability meant that she could behave in very challenging ways, but what she needed was patience, respect and the support of her mother. Instead she was locked up in a police station without me or anyone else who knew her for support.

“I know that some of the officers were doing their best, but I cannot understand why others thought it was appropriate to put an 11 year-old-girl in handcuffs and leg restraints. I can’t accept that it will ever be appropriate for the police to hood a disabled child, regardless of how they behave. I call on Sussex Police to stop doing this to children immediately.”

Gus Silverman of Irwin Mitchell, who is acting for Child H and her mother, said: “The systemic failings uncovered by the IPCC’s investigation are truly shocking. Child H was detained for a cumulative total of 60 hours in various police stations. During this time every Sussex Police custody sergeant and inspector involved in her care failed to call an appropriate adult, most obviously her mother, to support her.

“In the last Queen’s Speech the Government undertook to ban the use of police cells as places of safety for those under 18 years of age. This commitment must now be put in effect as soon as possible.

“My client calls on the Chief Constable of Sussex Police to commission an independent expert in managing challenging behaviour to review the extremely intrusive form of restraints used against Child H by officers in this case. It is a particular matter of concern that the IPCC felt unable to uphold Ms H’s complaint regarding the uses of ‘spit hoods’ on her daughter as this supposedly accorded with force policy that any spitting will always justify hooding.”

Sussex Police and PCC response:

Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne said: “The experience of victims is paramount when I hold Sussex Police to account for the service they deliver to the public.

“Undoubtedly, this was a challenging case but the treatment of this 11 year-old was totally unacceptable. However, I welcome the fact that, since the incident with Child H, Sussex Police has responded swiftly and positively to the IPCC’s recommendations. They have moved quickly to improve the training and processes that support vulnerable people and those with mental illness, learning disabilities and substance misuse issues.

“It’s also promising that aspects of Sussex Police’s new protocols are being recognised as good practice nationally and I will continue to monitor their work to ensure it provides the best possible service to all vulnerable groups.”

Temporary Deputy Chief Constable Robin Smith said: “We take our responsibility for any use of force very seriously particularly when it involves young people or those who are vulnerable.

“We welcomed the IPCC’s scrutiny and during its investigation the Force has adopted many schemes to support vulnerable people and those with mental illness, learning disabilities and substance misuse issues. Aspects of our Sussex models are being held as good practice nationally and we will respond to any new learning identified.

“A lot has been achieved to support people who are vulnerable, or have a mental illness, learning disability or substance misuse issue however, we cannot be complacent and will continue to work with partners to ensure that the right decisions are made in assessing and supporting those who need it.”

A statement from Sussex Police set out how they plan to deal with similar cases in future:

“Those with suspected mental illness, learning difficulties and substance misuse issues:

- Have their needs better understood by police officers, PCSOs, Specials and staff who have been trained to identify signs and symptoms of mental ill-health and how to adapt their communication style to assist them in managing a situation.

- If under 18 years of age, can expect officers who are called to deal with them to call the CAMH service (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) to obtain advice on a course of action that may prevent detention under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983. The service is provided by Sussex Partnership NHSFoundation Trust.

- If detained under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983 and under the age of 18 years, will not be taken to any police cells in West Sussex, East Sussex or Brighton and Hove unless there are the most exceptional circumstances present.

- Can expect a triage team, dedicated officer and nurse, to respond to calls and ensure an appropriate response to their needs. The Street Triage Project provides assessment, immediate support and advice to people in crisis, fewer detentions under Section 136, and timely access to primary and secondary care. The triage team will also make referrals to community voluntary sector organisations when appropriate. Street Triaige operates widely across West Sussex and East Sussex during core hours. In Brighton and Hove officers work closely with the Mental Health Rapid Response Service who provide assistance and advice to officers who are dealing with someone in mental health crisis. The service also undertakes assessments and admissions where necessary into hospital.

- Who have been arrested on suspicion of committing a criminal offence are now assessed by a specialist Police Court Liaison and Diversion practitioner in each of the six custody suites seven days a week from 8am to 8pm. The practitioner will talk with the person, giving priority to those under 18, and offer advice to custody officers and staff about the most appropriate way of managing the detainee and highlighting care needs and vulnerabilities. The practitioners have the NHS patient record computer system installed in custody suites, and have close working links with the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and the Youth Offending Team. An extension of the service has included a speech and language therapist to the Youth Offending team.

- Will have their needs considered in Magistrates Courts. Information gathered by the PCLDS practitioner may, where the person provides their informed consent, be provided to the judiciary within criminal justice partner organisations to inform charging and sentencing decisions including referral route. The Police Courts Liaison and Diversion Service have been held as national good practice.”

For the full list of the IPCC’s recommendations, visit:

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