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Almost nine in ten strip-searches of children by UK police are being carried out looking for drugs, according to a report published Monday. The report found that 2,847 children, some as young as 8, were strip-searched in England and Wales between 2018 and 2022, with the vast majority – 86 percent –carried out by police looking for drugs. Some children had their clothes removed in fast food takeaways, amusement parks, the back of police vans and schools.
The report, by Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza, was prompted by the “horrific” strip search of a 15-year-old Black schoolgirl, known as Child Q, while she was on her period after she was wrongly accused of having cannabis. An official investigation into the case, which came to light in March 2022, concluded racism was a factor in the decision to strip search Child Q. De Souza’s report revealed that Black children were six times more likely to be strip-searched than the overall child population. It also found that more than half of searches were done without an appropriate adult present, a legal requirement unless it is an emergency, and that in 51 percent of cases searches resulted in no further action.“The fact our drug laws are driving these horrendous statistics is no surprise. Drug searches dominate stop and search which will often be the precursor for majority of these strip searches, and as in the case of Child Q it is often for suspected possession of small amounts of drugs,” Niamh Eastwood, executive director of Release, the UK's national centre of expertise on drugs and drugs law, told VICE World News.
“We need to be asking, in what world is it proportionate to ask a child to remove their clothing, to strip naked, in order to ascertain whether they have a small amount of drugs on their person, which often they do not? “The impact of these searches is horrific, leaving children traumatised and parents deeply distressed. The racist nature of our drug laws and drugs policing has been well established, this is just more proof of why we need to reform our current approach to drugs and why if politicians really cared about protecting children this is the issue they would be focusing on,” said Eastwood. In the report, De Souza said that “children are being failed by those whose job it is to protect them”. She said the research had upturned evidence of “deeply concerning practice” across England and Wales, and said it was “utterly unacceptable” that Black children were significantly more likely to be strip-searched compared to the national population. Policing Minister Chris Philp told BBC News that children are being strip-searched for their own safety. “Very often criminal gangs exploit young people to transport drugs concealed in intimate body cavities,” he said. “It is important that these searches get done to safeguard young people who may be getting exploited.” While it is true that drug dealers, including young people working on county lines networks, hide drugs in their body cavities in order to avoid detection, using this as a reason to strip search so many children, often without finding anything, is unjustified according to Eastwood. She said the strip searching of children is often counterproductive, and that police were too focused on external threats such as drug dealing gangs, rather than the impacts of their own policing. “The minister points to safeguarding of children, which of course is paramount, but too often policing is concerned with external safeguards, such as the threat of so-called county lines,” she said, “and no consideration is given to the negative impact of policing, especially where a young person is repeatedly stopped and searched or where, as is the case here, children are violated through the use of strip search.”