How many more Child Qs are there? How many children are strip-searched by the police and who are they? Patricia Clarke and Claudia Williams investigate
4 April 2022
30 May 2022
Why this story?
Occasionally a story comes along and it stops you in your tracks. The case of Child Q was one such story. She was a 15-year-old black girl who was strip searched by the police at school while on her period. An official report into the incident concluded the search should never have happened and racism was a factor in the decision to strip search her. Child Qās mother and aunt say she now self-harms and screams in her sleep. They say they have seen her change from a happy-go-lucky girl to a timid recluse who hardly speaks. We started this story wanting to know how often the police subject children to this kind of strip search ā what the Metropolitan Police calls a more thorough search where intimate parts are exposed. From that followed questions about why, who and where. You might think in an age where data is everywhere it would be relatively easy to answer these questions. Far from it.Ā Jasper Corbett, Editor
Georgia Wood: I did not feel safe. I didnāt feel like it was for my benefit. It was not portrayed to me as if it was for my safety. Itās not something that you can bounce back from.
Patricia Clarke, narrating: Iām sitting in a hotel room in Swansea, and if Iām honest, Iām nervous.Ā
Iām here to meet a young woman called Georgia Wood.Ā
Georgia and I have been talking over Facebook, and over the phone, for the past month or soā¦ and today sheās finally going to tell me her story.
Itās a story that I know will be tough to hear, but tougher for her to tell.Ā
It probably doesnāt help that Georgia and I are sitting in a gloomy room. Itās trying to be a nice day outside, but thereās a black curtain draped over the windowsā¦ a not quite successful attempt to dampen the noise of the traffic outside.Ā
I might be nervous, but Georgia is warm and chatty. Sheās telling me about her childhood.Ā
Georgia: I was the girl that was always covered in dirt and hay and climbing trees and falling out of trees, and constantly looked a bit of a mess. But I was always happy running around, covered in dirt, playing with my animals.
Patricia, narrating: Georgia grew up in Pontardawe, a small town in the Swansea Valley in Wales. She was mainly brought up by her mum, and a lot of their time was spent on a shared hobby: horse riding.Ā
Georgia: The stables are in a quarry, in a disused quarry. So it was almost like being in a little bit of a fish bowl. So you would kind of look down towards the stables and it was in a horse shoe shape. And every year when it snowed, it always used to snow more up there because it was on top of a mountain. So every year weād get amazing snow. And I just remember playing in the snow a lot when I was a child.
Patricia, narrating: Her childhood sounds idyllicā¦ mountains, and horses, and climbing trees.Ā
But one day it all changed.
Georgia: I felt like I had to calm my mum down, cus I could see how anxious she was. I could see how upset she was getting and I didnāt want her to feel like that. But looking back, I didnāt know what was going to happen to me. And had I known, I donāt think I would have been as willing to get in that car as what I was.
Patricia, narrating: I came to Swansea to talk to Georgia because of a story that broke in March of this year.Ā
The Metropolitan police have apologised after a 15-year-old Black girl was strip searched at her school by police officersā¦Good Morning Britain
Patricia, narrating: This was Child Q ā a name given to the young girl to protect her identity.
ā¦she was on her period which is another distressing element for her of the strip search. The reason that was given at the time was that she was suspected of carrying cannabis. She wasnāt.Good Morning Britain
Patricia, narrating: Ever since her story emerged, Iāve been trying to understand whether strip searches of young people āĀ of children, really ā have become a common part of policing.Ā
And if they have, how on earth has that happened?
You might remember the story of Child Q.
This was a young Black girl, stripped naked in front of two police officers, while on her period, in a school in East London. She was made to ābend over, spread her legs and use her hands to spread her buttocks whilst coughingā.
The official report into this incident concluded that racism was a likely factor, and pointed to serious wrongdoing from the police āĀ and the school.Ā
But part of what puzzled me was the data.Ā
As the media frenzy around the story grew I started to see numbers flying around ā and some of them were shocking. Thousands of children strip searched by the police every year.Ā
And those were only partial figures. I was left with so many questions.Ā
Iām Patricia Clarke and in this Slow Newscast from Tortoise, Stripped. Searched. Traumatised, I want to know: how many other Child Qās are there?Ā
Why are the police strip searching children? And was Child Q an extreme mistake or an example of modern policing?Ā
Itās April 2009ā¦ and Georgia Wood is 12 years old.
Georgia: It was just an average day. You know, Iād gone about my daily life. Iād done the horses, we had ridden, Iād spent time with my mum. It was just an average day. It was nothing out of the ordinary, nothing that had been any different about it.
Patricia, narrating: Iāve seen pictures of Georgia at this age ā sheās tall and a bit lanky, and you can tell sheās still settling into her growing body. Sheās got long hair that she hides behind ā and sheās never far from one of her horses.Ā
On the day sheās describing, sheās in the car with her mum. Theyāve just been to the supermarket ā and theyāre on their way back to the farm where they live ā when theyāre pulled over by the police.Ā
Georgia: As I opened the door to get out, a police officer shut the door. He said, ācan you stay there for a second?ā and I kind of looked up and thought, āoh, right, okayā. And I thinkā¦ there was two police officers that we could see at the time. I think they said something about pulling us over about a light being out at the back or something like that. It wasnāt for what we eventually found out it was.
Patricia, narrating: Georgia and her mum would later find out that her mumās new business partner was involved in a multi-million pound drug smuggling operation.Ā
But they didnāt know that then. The officers who stopped them just said there was a problem with their car.
The police searched the vehicleā¦ and then told them that they were going to be taken to the police station. Separately.Ā
Georgia: And I remember my mum kicking up a fuss and I said, āno, mum itās fineā. I remember saying āitās fine. Iām okay. Iāll be fine. Iāll see you at the police station.āĀ
So we went in separate cars. I went with two officers and she obviously went in a separate car.
They put the lights on for us to go to the police station, cus I remember asking the question: āare the lights on? This is so cool!ā And they were like, āyeah, the lights are onā. And I was like, āwow, this is amazing! This is so fun, I canāt wait to tell my friends when I get back to school. Iāve been in the back of a police car, how fun is that?ā
Patricia, narrating: When Georgia tells me this, I find it kind of painful.Ā
Sometimes, when she remembers this period of her life, she sounds quite grown upā¦ other times itās so clear sheās just a kid.Ā
Georgia chatted away to the police in the car. She told them she wanted to be a police officer when she grew up. But she says the mood changed when she arrived at the station.Ā
Georgia: And when we got to the police station, they said, āright, weāre going to strip search youā. And I was just kind of like, oh, okayā¦
Patricia: Did you even know what that meant?Ā
Georgia: No, no. I had no idea. Not a clue.Ā
Patricia, narrating: Georgia was taken into a room by two female police officers. She wasnāt offered an appropriate adult ā but weāll come back to appropriate adults later.Ā
Georgia: My mum was devastated. She really was. I remember her being frantic in the police station. Shouting, screaming. I think she was restrained at one point. And as a 12-year-old child, you just kind of stand there and think, āI donāt know what to doā. So you take the direction of the adult, who was the police officer, and who says, ācome with me and I will search youā and you just go, āoh, okayā. And you just kind of go along with it because you are only a child at 12. And even though you think youāre mature, you most certainly are not.
Patricia, narrating: Georgia later found out that one female officer expressed concerns about the strip search, but it went ahead anyway.
Georgia was taken on her own to a room with two female police officers. She still remembers what she was wearingā¦ jogging bottoms and wellies.Ā
Georgia: It was shoes off first, which was the wellies. The bottom half: trousers off, passed to the side. Knickers dropped. They looked ā back on. Top half off, passed to the side. Bra off, passed to the side, and they just kind of checked it, to the side, and then it was patted down the front just to make sure that there was nothing stuck that they couldnāt see, cus I was facing the wall away from them.Ā
Patricia, narrating: Georgia remembers seeing hay fall out of her wellies and feeling embarrassed. She didnāt want them to think she didnāt wash.Ā Ā
Georgia: I felt kind of numb. I donāt remember feeling scared or worried. I just kind of felt like I wasnāt really there. It was only after that it happened that I felt any emotion and it kind of hit me, but as I was going through it, I justā¦ yeah, nothing. I canāt remember feeling anything until afterwards, but during that time it was justā¦ my body was just doing as it was told and my brain was just kind of letting me go on with it. It didnāt hit until I got home and a couple of days later when the nightmare started that I started to feel something. I think it was just such a surreal experience.
Patricia, narrating: Georgiaās strip search was 13 years ago. When she tells me what happened, you can hear the tension in her voice. And I could see it in her hands, too.
I keep having to remind myself that the person who was searched is the one in the photographs āĀ the little girl riding a horse āĀ and not the 25-year-old sitting in front of me in this pokey hotel room.
Speaking to Georgia helped me understand how a strip search might happen in practice, but I couldnāt quite get my head around why it happens āĀ or how often.Ā
Katrina Ffrench: My name is Katrina Ffrench, and Iām the founding director of Unjust, a non profit organisation that focuses on addressing racial discimination in policing and the criminal justice system.Ā Ā
Patricia, narrating: Katrina has been working to address racial discrimination in policing for years.Ā
Sheās helping me to understand the different types of strip search that can happen.Ā
Katrina: So thereās more thorough searches, and then thereās intimate searches.Ā
Patricia, narrating: The type of strip search Georgia experienced is a search involving the exposure of intimate parts of the body.
Itās one of the most intrusive searches out there, and itās the same type of search that happened to Child Q.Ā
Thereās also another kind of strip search, called a more thorough search, which stops a stage before this āĀ and ends with a person in their underwear.Ā
Both kinds can happen in police custody after an arrest. But they can also happen before an arrest. In other words: a routine stop and search on the street can become a strip search.
Katrina: Examples are officers are walking down the street and they see a group of young people and somebody puts something in their waist area.
They may feel that this person is hiding, concealing a weapon, or potentially concealing drugs, and may decide that they would like to search them in a more thorough way. Ideally if theyāre going to ask for anything other than the removal of outer coat wear that needs to be done in the police station, and if they ask for you to remove more than your outer coat it has to be done out of public viewā¦ but what weāve heard is that children have had their trousers pulled down in a police van.Ā Ā
Patricia, narrating: These are really extreme policing powers.Ā
So when ā and why ā might it be appropriate to do this to a child?
Graham Wettone: Iāll tell you now, most police officers Iāve worked with hatedā¦ I hated doing strip searches. I didnāt like doing them at all. Itās not something you want to do. You donāt choose to go to work one day and [say] āIām going to find somebody to strip search todayā. Cus itās not an enjoyable experience for anybody.Ā
Patricia, narrating: Graham Wettone was a frontline Metropolitan police officer for 30 years, until 2010. He now teaches prospective police recruits.Ā
Graham: Stop a search and strip searching are essential in policing. People, sadly, hide stuff on them. They secrete stuff on them. As soon as you tell somebody that the police can only search to a certain degree, guess where theyāre going to hide their stuff? Theyāre going to hide it where they know the police canāt search ordinarily on the street, and they know itās then difficult for officers to conduct a more thorough search on them.
Patricia, narrating: Both drug crime and knife crime are on the rise across the UK ā and they have been for five years.Ā
From Grahamās perspective, and from that of other former police officers Iāve spoken to, the requirement for strip search powers is simple: the police need to protect the public from harm, and dangerous criminals ā including children ā sometimes conceal weapons or drugs on their person.
But more than protecting the public, says Graham, itās also about protecting the individual who is being searched. What if theyāre concealing a weapon or a drug that they might use to harm themselves?
Or what if, in the case of children, theyāve been coerced into carrying an illegal item? Itās well-known that drug dealers sometimes exploit vulnerable adults and children.Ā
For that reason, Graham sees the media controversy thatās arisen around Child Q ā and the increased calls to re-examine child strip searches ā as disproportionate.
Graham: Personally, and speaking from a policing background, I think thatās a knee-jerk reaction to one incident. I think we need to look at what happened on this one, single incident. You donāt change the whole process because of one incident thatās taken place, that may have been either a poor judgement or poor areas of decision-making.
Patricia, narrating: Iāve spoken to dozens of experts over the course of reporting this story: former police officers, people connected to Child Qās school, local parents, lawyers, activists, politiciansā¦
Everybody has condemned what happened to Child Q.
I also know Georgia experienced something similar 13 years ago. She was also a child with no real understanding of what was about to happen to her, and nobody was there to help her.Ā
So: are Georgia and Child Q really outliers? Hereās Katrina again.
Katrina: I think we have to unpick what we mean by an outlier. Children are being strip searched. So that isnātā¦ thatās a fact. That isnāt an anomaly in itself. Maybe the difference was that children arenāt being strip searched on their period. So Iād like to think that thatās the āoutlierā aspect of this.
But when we look at the statistics, we know that there were 35 children under the age of 12 strip searched by the Met police in between 2016 and 2021. That doesnāt seem to me to seem like an outlier. It seems like thereās a systemic issue here about how strip search is being used. So if weāre not recording things properly, who knows whatās been going on without our knowledge.
Patricia, narrating: The data for London that Katrina mentions paints a complicated picture about strip searches. And the UK-wide data is patchy at best.Ā
But we do know that strip searches are increasing.Ā
We sent out Freedom of Information requests to all 45 police forces in the UK, asking them how many children they have strip searched over the past five years, and asking for specific details about age, gender, race and the type of search.Ā
Out of everything we requested, Iām most intrigued by the pre-arrest figures āĀ how many strip searches happen off the back of stop and search every year? And how many of those involve a child exposing their genitals to strangers?
Even while I wait for the police forces to respond to our request, thereās some trends we can analyse from the data we already have.
Niamh: Iām Niamh Eastwood. Iām Executive Director of Release. And Release is the UK centre of expertise on drugs and drug laws.Ā
Patricia, narrating: Niamh and her team provide services to people who use drugs, and to people who are affected by drugs laws. Theyāve spent years researching this area of policing. Part of that has meant requesting data from police forces about stop and search and strip searches.Ā
Niamh: Just for example last year there were 700,000 stop and searches āĀ nearly 700,000 stop and searches ā across England and Wales.
And almost 70% of those āĀ 69% āĀ were for drugs. And when we talk about drugs, itās possession of drugs and itās mainly possession of cannabis.Ā
Although the numbers are not the same for strip search, if a police officer, after a stop search, determines that it is then necessary, the test is one of necessity. To carry out a strip search because nothing has been fined after a physical pat down, they can do that without any other requirement, except their judgement that it is necessary to detain this person and then take them either to a police station or a designated area.
Patricia, narrating: The rhetoric around stop and search more generally ā and strip searches in particular ā is often about serious crime prevention. Itās about keeping drugs and weapons off the street and reducing violence.Ā
But Child Qās search happened because they suspected she smelt of cannabis. Even the IOPC, the official police watchdog, has said using the smell of cannabis as a single ground for a stop and search is not good practice. And yet, according to Releaseās data, as many as 60% of stop and searches are for cannabis.Ā
It also suggests that, in 2019, 90% of strip searches on people of all ages were for drugs, not weapons.
Their data also tells us who is being searched.Ā
Niamh: The research that weāve done at Release shows that Black people, and in particular young Black men, are the focus of drugs policing ā and policing generally. And they feel that they are overpoliced. Our statistics show that if you are Black, you are nine times more likely to be stopped for drugs compared to the White population.
And thatās despite the fact government figures show that drug use is lower amongst the Black population than the White population. So that idea that crime is more centred amongst the Black community āĀ which I donāt hold ā that idea can be easily disputed when we look at drugs policing. Easily disputed.
Patricia, narrating: This racial disparity appears clearly in strip search data.Ā
According to data provided to us by the Met police, half of more thorough, intimate parts exposed strip searches in London were on Black people, even though they only make up about 13% of the London population.Ā
For Graham, and other former police officers I spoke toā¦ thereās a clear explanation for that.Ā
Graham: So when you look at the numbers, who is more likely to be stabbed on the street? Who is more likely to be a suspect? In many parts of London, it is young Black males. So they are going to be stopped and searched, because they are the ones who are either being victims of a crime or committed a crime. Sadly.Ā
Patricia, narrating: Grahamās putting forward a fairly common police perspective. In fact, itās the same explanation that the Met gave in a statement when we asked them.
For decades, experts have argued that stop and search legitimises racial profiling. As far back as 1999, an official inquiry following the death of Stephen Lawrence called it a tool for āracist stereotypingā.Ā
I asked Graham whether he acknowledged racial profiling might play a part in strip searches of children, and in particular whether something called āadultificationā might be at play.Ā
Graham: Yeah, I think thereās some truth in that. I policed throughout London in my career, predominantly south London. A large scale Black community in many areas I policed āĀ I think they are a bit more streetwise and savvy than some White kids.
I think itās evening out, but in my experience that definitely was the case. Are they treated slightly differently? Possibly, but I think again, theyāre treated because of how they are, not because ofā¦ when I was policing, I didnāt treat someone according to the colour of their skin, I treated them for how they presented themselves to me.
You know, you assess the person in front of you, so I wasnāt assessing skin colours as such, I was assessing, really, how streetwise or savvy they appeared to me. So I wasnāt taking account of their age, or what I thought their age might be, or their ethnicity. It was really how theyāre talking to me and how theyāre approaching me.
Patricia, narrating: I have to admit that Grahamās response shocked me. I asked him what he made of what a number of Black children have told me while reporting this story.Ā Ā
Patricia: ā¦ there were Black kids under 18 there and they were saying that they felt frustrated, they felt like they were held to a different standard than their White counterparts. Can you see how that might put their backs up? They might feel frustrated at the notion that theyāre more āstreet savvyā, when actually they feel like, āwell, weāre just kids as wellā.Ā
Graham: Yeah, but I think that almostā¦ that comes from society. I think society puts that onus on them, this isnāt down to policing. I think society puts an onus on some Black kids to grow up quicker, to be a bit more streetwise, and to almost achieve higher. And I think that theyāre society issues.
Patricia, narrating: The IOPC ā the police watchdog I mentioned earlier ā has called for changes to be made in the way stop and search is used disportionately on people from Black, Asian and other ethnic minority backgrounds.Ā
The stereotyping Graham just described sounds a lot like the type of policing that theyāre trying to change.
Katrinaās clear on the impact.
Katrina: In terms of what it means for the childā¦ This concept of the lower threshold of Black children and police looking at them in a different light, isnāt just in the moment. It isnāt just for that stop. I think it has greater repercussions for the child involved outside of that policing interaction that will never be captured by any police statistic.Ā
Patricia, narrating: Graham disagrees that this is racial profiling. He says itās the result of intelligence-led policing.
And on the wider point of children being strip searched, he said we were looking at it the wrong way. According to Graham, not all under 18s should be thought of as children.
Graham: Yeah, I love this term āchildrenā because honestly you deal with some 16, 17 year olds and they are more adult than some adults.
It comes down to dealing with the person in front of you at the time. Age is a number for me. We say this throughout life, āage is just a numberā, yet we come to 18 and itās almost like itās a magical barrier that police shouldnāt be able to do stuff to anybody under 18. There are some 17-year-olds that are more powerful, stronger, more streetwise and committing really serious offenses. 15-year-olds. The age profile is getting lower and lower for people committing really serious offences.
Patricia, narrating: Of course, young people do commit crimes āĀ and sometimes really violent ones. But the age of criminal responsibility āĀ the age that you can be strip searched in England, Northern Ireland and Wales ā is 10. In Scotland, itās 12. Thatās really young.
Grahamās right that strip searches on children who are young are rarerā¦ but thatās not really my point.
It doesnāt really matter whether you think a young person acts older than their age. We have laws in place to differentiate between adults and anyone under 18 specifically to protect them ā and their human rights ā based on their age.Ā
Thatās what makes this question of āreasonable groundsā so difficult. When is it āreasonableā to strip search a child, when it might have a life-changing impact on them?
Three out of four times, nothing is found during a routine stop and search. Releaseās data suggests that over half of strip searches lead to no further action.Ā
To Niamh, itās about proportion. Is what youāre going to find during a strip search more harmful than the search itself?
Niamh: The level of trauma that is involved in that is just so damaging, and all youāre doing is setting up that child for the potential of more harm to them. Theyāre more likely to become involved in criminality. Theyāre more likely to be involved in drugs to deal with the trauma. We know that drug dependency is a by-product of people experiencing adverse childhood experiences and, you know, arguably a strip search ā being forced to remove your clothes as a child in the presence of two strangers ā is totally, totally unacceptable. So when police officers say we need to do this in order to protect these children, I justā¦ I donāt see that as a legitimate argument. I think that is a totally false flag in this.Ā
Temi Mwale: My name is Temi and Iām the Executive Director of the 4Front Project.Ā
Patricia, narrating: This is Temi Mwale. Sheās the founder of 4Front, a youth organisation founded in 2012 and based in Grahame Park Estate in North West London.Ā
Temi: Yeah 4Front was set up 10 years ago this year, and we work with a range of young people in terms of age from around 13 to even 25 and upwardsā¦
Patricia, narrating: While Iāve been reporting this story, nearly everyone Iāve spoken to who works on youth strip searches in London has told me one thing: speak to 4Front.Ā
They help young people who have experienced trauma, violence and racial injustice. And part of that work includes acting as āappropriate adultsā for young people who come into contact with the police.Ā
Temi: So an appropriate adult is not just in relation to strip search. Itās a necessary role when a child or vulnerable person is arrested and in the custody of the police, especially in a police station ā but not solely, but mainly ā, to ensure that that child or vulnerable person understands their rights and what is happening ā the whole process.
Patricia, narrating: If a child is strip searched then an appropriate adult must be present ā unless there is an urgent reason otherwise, or the child states they donāt want one there.Ā
The same is true for strip searches that happen as a result of stop and search, although many of the people Iāve spoken to āĀ including the CEO of the National Appropriate Adult Network ā have questioned how often appropriate adults are called in for these kinds of searches.Ā
One 2013 study found an appropriate adult was not present in almost half of strip searches of children. Remember, Georgia didnāt have one, nor did Child Q.
Temi has been an appropriate adult for lots of young people. But the first time it involved a strip search is etched on her memory. That was in 2019ā¦
Temi: It was quite a small room. There were three men. They were kind of facing one way, and the child was opposite them, looking at them, and they kind of just give their orders. And I was in the corner maybe on the childās left side, also at the time first of all facing the officers. But then I turned around to face the corner between the wall and the door.
Patricia, narrating: The boy had asked her to be there with himā¦ but he didnāt want her to look for the second half of the strip search, when he exposed his penis.Ā
She later found out that the police should make sure an appropriate adult is the same gender as the child.Ā
Temi: āSomething that struck me as well, just I meanā¦ from what I remember, was this boy had so many layers. You know, he had his big puffer coat and he had a jumper, and then he had another hoodie, and then he had a t-shirt. So as he was taking off item by item, I just remember thinking, he just looks so much smaller than when he had all these layers on, he looked a little bit bigger, you know. And I guess what I remember all these years later is just how he had quite thin arms. And he just looked like a boy, because he is a boy.
To me, I could sense the emotion for him, it was a bit uncomfortable for him. And a bit of powerlessness, because heās being ordered by these men to take off his clothes, off his own back. He would not be choosing to do that in that situation. So that kind ofā¦ the force. Being forced to do that, it wasnāt lost on me that that was very much part of the energy of the room.
Patricia, narrating: The majority of 4Front staff members and the young people they support have been strip searched more than onceā¦Ā
Temi: And since that time where I became, I guess, first aware of it in a more formal sense, thereās been a number of occasions that weāve had to go and support people in the police station. But then also that young people that we support, and other people in the community, have shared with us their experience or strip search. And in our small geographical area the extent, how often itās used, how frequently, and how many children and young people have actually experienced it ā some of them multiple times ā is shocking.
Patricia, narrating: Temi says itās impossible to remove the issue of strip searching from the broader context of peopleās lack of confidence in the police.Ā
Particularly when it comes to young people of colour in London, and especially Black boys.Ā
Strip search powers are just one of many ways that trust in the police is eroded, she says.Ā
Patricia: What impact do you think this kind of policing has on the people youāve seen? How do you think that a strip search changes their relationship with the police?
Temi: I would say that it doesnāt necessarily change their relationship with the police because often the people that are being treated in this way already have experience of being treated in this way by the police. A strip search is just one tool that is being used. Underneath itā¦ again itās the control, is the power, is the systemic racism āĀ which is always there and underpins and cannot be removed ā, is the culture of violence and domination thatās inherent within that system. So all of that is there, whatever tools they choose.Ā
Patricia, narrating: Georgiaās experience of being strip searched as a young girl is noticeably different to the young people Temi is talking about.Ā
Sheās White, sheās living in rural Wales, and her only contact with the police prior to that day was in a classroom, at school.Ā
The search changed her relationship with the police forever.Ā
Georgia: Yeah, for a 12-year-old to be taken away from her mum byā¦ I think it was trust, you know, Iād always been brought up to trust the police. The police are someone, or people, that are put there to protect you. If youāve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear. And I suppose that day, it all kind of changed. That even though you havenāt done anything wrong, you do still have something to fear just because they might think youāve done something wrong, even though you havenāt.Ā
It almost seemed like a vendetta at the end of it. Looking back, itās like they wanted to find something on you. They wanted to find something that would incriminate you or make you feel guilty, or make you guilty, because that was the image that they had of you painted in their heads.
Patricia, narrating: Weāve spoken to a handful of people who were strip searched for this story, and read dozens more accounts. Thereās one thing they all have in common āĀ trauma.Ā
In fact, the IOPC report I mentioned earlier details the long-term traumatic impact that stop and search alone can have on young people, and their ongoing relationship with the police.Ā
Georgia didnāt realise how much the search had affected her until years after the event.Ā
Georgia: I feel like my anxiety, my panic attacks that I had when I was younger, kind of all started when the searches happened and my life was turned upside down. You know, I was always a happy-go-lucky kid.
After the searches and after the court case I was very unsure of myself and my anxiety, and I didnāt know what a panic attack was. Iād had them a few times and I didnāt know what they were. I just thought Iād cried so much that it was a part of crying that Iād never known that there was.
Patricia, narrating: No drugs were ever found on Georgia or her mother ā and they took the police to court.
Eventually, she and her mum received an apology from South Wales police, who admitted that there should have been an appropriate adult with Georgia.Ā
Two officers received āmanagement trainingā and Georgia was awarded Ā£17,000 in compensation.Ā
Patricia: And do you think it can ever be appropriate for the police to strip search an under 18?Ā
Georgia: No. Thereās no need. Thereās absolutely no need.Ā
I understand there are bad people in the world. And I do get that, that not everybody is who they say they are, but the effects of strip searching a childā¦ itās not something that you can bounce back from. I suppose itās still horrible as an adult, but as a child, it has really affected my life. And I dread to think of how Child Q was affected in this.
Patricia, narrating: Georgiaās found it difficult to deal with the media attention on the Child Q case.
Patricia: And has this being in the media affected you?
Georgia: It did, yeah, because you kind of leave things in the past, or you want to leave things in the past, and you want to move on with your life and then it gets brought up and then it brings all the old feelings up and you kind of start reliving what happened to you trying to relate.
Patricia: I know you mentioned when you found out about this case, you said, āoh, itās happened againā. But from the data that weāve been looking at, this happens to thousands of children every year. How does that make you feel?
Georgia: I didnāt realise it was that bad. I really didnāt realise it was that bad. I thought I was one of few. One of a handful, maybe. I really didnāt realise it was that, that amount. And itās not reported on. Itās not a spoken about topic.
Patricia, narrating: I started this investigation wondering whether the case of Child Q was a one-off ā a specific set of failings from teachers and individual police officers. Thereās no doubt that, on one level, it was all of these things.Ā
When her story became public, Child Qās school issued a formal apology. So did the Met. Two of the five police officers involved were put on desk duties, and an investigation into their conduct is ongoing.Ā
But everything Iāve learnt during my investigation suggests that Child Q is not alone.Ā
I can be confident when I tell Georgia that something similar has happened to thousands of children. From the London data alone, we know nearly 9,000 children were strip searched over the three years to 2021.
And I can be confident when I say this disproportionately affects children of colour āĀ Black children in particular.Ā
If anything, Georgia is the outlier.
Butā¦ much to my own frustrationā¦ I canāt be more specific than that.Ā
Not every police force replied to my requests for data, but nearly all of those that did said some version of the same thing: the data we requested isnāt retrievable, because itās not collected in a searchable format. This means that the information might technically be on record, but it will be hidden away in a note in a police report.Ā
This is especially true for strip searches that happen before an arrest. In those cases, many police forces admitted that they donāt collect that data at all. So we donāt know how often this happens across the UK.
The Met police, for all its criticisms at the moment, is ahead of the game when it comes to providing data on this. But their data isnāt exactly clear.Ā
When their officers searched Child Q, they asked her to expose her genitals, bend over and cough. But, as the incident happened out of custody, it was recorded as an āOther searchā āĀ not a strip search.Ā
Weāve been back and forth with the Met police over this, and they say an āotherā search can also refer to a search where intimate parts are exposed. According to them, this doesnāt mean that Child Qās search went uncounted.Ā
But other experts weāve spoken to donāt recognise the term āother searchā ā and frankly it doesnāt seem like a particularly precise way of recording such an extreme and intrusive power.Ā Ā
No records were made of Georgiaās search, either. In fact, many of the experts we spoke to, including a former Borough Commander, said that strip searches that happen off the back of stop and search are not systematically recorded at all.
In a statement, the policing minister, Kit Malthouse, said the law is clear that strip search must be fair and respectful. āAbsolutely nobody should be strip searched because of their race or ageā the statement said. Ā
Collecting better dataĀ on different types of strip searches and their outcomes, and disaggregating that data by age, race, and gender would be an important start.
But really, behind all of this āĀ the numbers, the policy, the bureaucracy ā are children.Ā
Children who are traumatised.Ā
Even thirteen years on, Georgia struggles to be alone in a room with strangers. She rejects the idea that a strip search was the best way to protect her.
Safety. Thatās what I think this story comes down to. What does it mean to keep a child safe, to have their best interest at heart?Ā
We know that alternatives to strip searches exist. Sniffer dogs, body scanners, custody supervision.Ā
Iām not saying that these are easy solutions, but surely, stripping thousands of children naked in front of strangers isnāt the answer.
Georgia: I did not feel safe. I didnāt feel like it was for my benefit. You say itās to safeguard the child, get you all doing more damage than what can ever be undone.Ā Ā
Patricia, narrating: This episode of the Slow Newscast was written and reported by me, Patricia Clarke, and Claudia Williams, who was also the producer. The sound designer was Tom Burchell and the editor was Jasper Corbett.Ā
How we got here
We started our investigation with a question: how many children are strip searched by the police across the UK every year? What began as a straightforward Google search quickly became much more complicated. We realised that police forces donāt all systematically collect data on strip searches, particularly when they happen before an arrest. So we sent Freedom of Information requests to the police, to try and understand the figures.
Really, though, we didnāt need the numbers to understand the long-term impact of strip searches. We spoke to people who experienced this type of search, as well as lawyers, activists, campaigners and former police officers who told us when, how and why this type of power is used by the police. It told us a lot about the state of policy and policing in this country. Patricia Clarke, Reporter
- When the protests in support of Child Q happened in March, an episode of the Guardianās Today in Focus podcast was published explaining the incident and what it indicates about racism in the Metropolitan Police.
- An explainer of the law on strip searching and how it relates to the Child Q incident is available on the House of Commons library site.
- The safeguarding review into the incident by the City and Hackney Safeguarding Children Partnership ā which found racism a likely āinfluencing factor ā can be found here.
- Nadeine Asbali, a secondary school teacher in South London, has written an opinion piece in the Guardian on policing in schools and the increasing pressure for teachers to be part of it.
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