Child Q and the law on strip search

In March 2022, protests took place in East London to show support for ‘Child Q’, a then 15-year-old black girl who in December 2020 was strip searched by police at her school.

The protests followed the publication of a safeguarding review into the incident (PDF) by the City and Hackney Safeguarding Children Partnership, which found racism a likely “influencing factor” in Child Q’s treatment.

This Insight looks at police powers to conduct strip searches, what happened in Child Q’s case, and the response.

What powers do police have to strip search children?

The police have a range of legislative powers to search people, with statutory codes of practice – known as PACE codes – outlining the procedures police should follow when exercising these.

PACE Code A (PDF) deals with stop and search, including searches where the police require a person to remove their clothing. Given the intrusive nature of this type of search and the requirement to expose intimate body parts, PACE Code A sets out rules intended to protect people’s dignity, minimise embarrassment, and prevent misuse of this power, including:

  • Reasonable and necessary: There must be reasonable grounds to justify the search. Searches exposing intimate body parts should not be treated as routine and should not be done simply because nothing was found in a standard search.
  • Oversight and governance: Officers must consult with a supervisor before conducting the search.
  • Privacy: The search must not be conducted in view of the public and must be conducted by an officer of the same sex as the person being searched.

When conducting such a search of someone under 18, PACE Code C says it must be done in the presence of an “Appropriate Adult” unless the child has expressly said they do not want that adult there and this has been documented. The attending police officers cannot act as an appropriate adult.

Schools also have guidance from the Department for Education to follow which outlines their powers to screen and search pupils, and confiscate items. This outlines statutory powers to search pupils or their possessions without consent if there is “reasonable grounds for suspecting that the pupil may have a prohibited item” such as illegal drugs.

How common is police strip search?

Detailed data on strip searches is not routinely available, making it difficult to determine the frequency and details of the searches that take place.

A 2018 inspection of Metropolitan Police Service custody suites (PDF) found “the numbers of strip searches were high and included many children and a significantly higher proportion of black and minority ethnic detainees”.

More recently, data released by the Metropolitan Police in response to an FOI request showed that between 2019 and 2021, 5,279 children were strip searched by the force. 75% were from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background.

These figures only relate to the Metropolitan Police and the overall number of children strip searched by the force could be higher as this only includes searches conducted on detainees after arrest.

What happened in Child Q’s case?

In December 2020, school staff contacted the police concerned that Child Q had drugs in her possession. Two officers later arrived at the school, Child Q was escorted out of an exam, and they initiated a strip search of her, but no drugs were found. Child Q (who was menstruating at the time of the search), and her family, have spoken about the traumatic effect the incident has had on her.

A local Child Safeguarding Practice Review of the incident (PDF) found “there was no reasonable justification” for the strip search to have occurred and its investigation of the events of the day indicates that many processes weren’t appropriately followed by the attending officers. The search was conducted without an appropriate adult present and there was no evidence that officers consulted a supervisor beforehand.

School staff were found to have acted in line with the powers outlined in Department for Education guidance with their first search of Child Q (not a strip search). However later staff “deferred to the authority of the police” instead of clarifying what actions the officers intended to take and challenging their decision.

Discipline vs safeguarding

The safeguarding review found the police and school staff lacked a “safeguarding first approach”, leading to intervention that was “disproportionate and ultimately harmful” to Child Q.

The review said that even if there had been concern Child Q was in possession of drugs, rather than taking such a disciplinary response, her safety and welfare should have been the priority. Practitioners should have considered what potential risks there were to her: for example, if she was being exploited and what help and protection she might have needed.

As to why the response to Child Q escalated in such a way, the safeguarding review concluded that racism and “adultification bias” was likely an “influencing factor”. “Adultification bias” refers to a type of stereotyping where Black children are seen as less innocent and vulnerable than other children because they are perceived as more “adult-like”. As a result, they are more likely to be viewed as a threat or a risk, rather than a child in need of support.

What has the response been and what will change?

It has been widely accepted that the strip search of Child Q should not have happened and the police have issued an apology.

In response to the incident, the Metropolitan Police will pilot a new policy in two London boroughs where any strip-search of a child will need approval from an inspector.

The safeguarding review also made recommendations for stronger guidance for officers that emphasises the need for appropriate adults in strip searches of children and the importance of their safeguarding needs. It also recommends that the Department for Education revise its guidance.

The Government has said it is taking this matter “extremely seriously” and is awaiting the outcome of an investigation by the Independent Office of Police Complaints (IOPC) before it responds. It has also announced its intention to review its guidance for schools and bring in “much tougher guidelines”.

The incident with Child Q follows long-standing debate about the use of stop and search on Black people and a series of recent public controversies, including the murder of Sarah Everard and policing of her vigil, which have contributed to allegations of institutional racism and systemic misogyny within the police.

Further reading

Reports of misogyny and sexual harassment in the Metropolitan Police, House of Commons Library

Policing in the UK, House of Commons Library

Police powers: Stop and search, House of Commons Library

About the author: Lauren Nickolls is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in policing and criminal justice.