Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Sussex Police told to improve policy after 11-year-old girl with disabilities was held in cells overnight

policeSussex Police have been issued with a series of recommendations for dealing with the restraint and detention of children and adults in police custody who are vulnerable and have a mental illness.

The recommendations, made by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), follow an investigation into the force’s treatment of a girl with a severe developmental disorder on 5 occasions between February 2 and March 2, 2012.

The girl, referred to as Child H to protect her identity, has a neurological disability that can cause challenging behaviour, with the potential to harm herself and others.

Child H, then aged 11, spent more than 60 hours in police custody after being arrested 3 times for minor offences, and on another occasion when she was detained under the Mental Health Act. The girl was held overnight in police cells twice. At the time of the incidents the girl’s neurological disability had not been diagnosed, but the force was informed by her mother that she was believed to have an autism spectrum disorder.

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. 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.

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.”

Robin Smith, temporary deputy chief constable of Sussex Police, said: “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. Aspects of our approach are being held as good practice nationally and we will respond to any new learning identified in the IPCC’s report.

“A lot has been achieved to support people who are vulnerable, 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.

“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.

Since this case, Sussex Police say improvements have been made, which mean those with suspected mental illness, learning disabilities and substance misuse issues can expect the following:

 They will 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, they can expect officers who are called to deal with them to call the 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

 If detained under s136 and under the age of 18 years, they will not be taken to a police cell unless there are exceptional circumstances

 A Street triage team – comprising a dedicated officer and nurse – to respond to calls and ensure an appropriate response to their needs. Street Triage provides assessment, immediate support and advice to people in crisis, fewer detentions under s136, and timely access to primary and secondary care. The triage team also make referrals to community voluntary sector organisations when appropriate

 If they have been arrested on suspicion of committing a criminal offence they are now assessed by a specialist Police Court Liaison and Diversion Service (PCLDS) practitioner in each of the 6 custody suites 7 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

They 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.

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