An 11-year-old girl with a neurological disability was restrained using a mesh anti-spit hood, handcuffs and leg straps in 2012, the police watchdog, Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has found.
Her disability had not been diagnosed at the time of the police contact, but her mother had told officers she believed she had an autism spectrum disorder.
Yet the IPCC found she was twice held overnight in police cells, without a parent, guardian or social worker present to support he despite the fact that all youths in custody are entitled to this.
The girl, named Child H in the IPCC’s report, was arrested three times and detained under the Mental Health Act once between 2 February and 2 March 2012.
The girl was detained for a total of 60 hours by Sussex Police in 2012.
Child H has “a neurological disability which can cause challenging behaviour”, the IPCC said. She suffers from a rare neurological disorder similar to autism that can cause sudden outbursts of anger, impulsivity and anxiety.
Her mother, known as Ms H, said in a statement through her solicitors: “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.”
Officers also failed to record why exactly they had used force.
The watchdog found six custody sergeants had a case to answer for misconduct for failing to make sure an appropriate adult was present; another for failing to make sure Child H was dealt with quickly while in custody, and two constables for using handcuffs.
In total, 27 officers and staff were investigated by the IPCC and 11 were found to have cases to answer for misconduct.
Two more officers – a custody sergeant and an inspector – would have also had a case to answer for failing to make sure an appropriate adult was present but have since retired.
No charges or further action were taken against the officers following the misconduct hearings, with two of them retiring and nine given advice on future conduct.
IPCC Commissioner Jennifer Izekor said: “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 case was described by a civil liberties lawyer as one of the most shocking examples of “inhuman and degrading” treatment of a disabled child in police custody. Government ministers have pledged to ban the use of police cells to detain those under 18 with mental health problems, thought to involve at least 150 children a year.
Ms H’s solicitor Gus Silverman from Irwin Mitchell said: “The systemic failings uncovered by the IPCC’s investigation are truly shocking and said the experience placed her at risk of “serious psychological trauma”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that facilities such as special schools, which looked after children with complex needs, would “never have dreamed” of using a spit guard on a child.
: “No one would suggest being spat at is a pleasant experience but what needs to be taken into account is the very serious risk of serious psychological trauma to a child when they are hooded.
He added: “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.”
However temporary deputy chief constable of Sussex Police Robin Smith defended the force’s approach, saying: ‘We take our responsibility for any use of force very seriously particularly when it involves young people or those who are vulnerable.
“We welcome 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.”
“The application of any type of restraint is considered only when the level of resistance causes concern for the safety of the detained person, the officer and other members of the public.”
“As a direct result of the investigation into this case, personal safety and first aid training, which all officers have to undertake, has been updated.”
“This means officers have learned communication skills to help them be more effective when helping people with mental illness. In addition all officers have refreshed their knowledge in the use of spit guards.”
However the IPCC found cases to answer for misconduct beyond the use of spit guards suggesting that improved training on the use of force on children and adults with mental illness, to ensure the use of force is avoided wherever possible, additional training on detaining vulnerable people and the role of an appropriate adult and ensuring officers are accountable for their use of force.
Image Credit: ‘cathydw‘