Written by:
Sophia Purdy-Moore

Ending the use of strip search against children

Read time:
7 minutes

Ending the use of strip search against children 

New Runnymede Trust research reveals the extent to which strip search is disproportionately used against children of colour, particularly Black boys and girls. If we’re really concerned about children’s welfare, it’s time to end this traumatising practice, writes the Runnymede Trust’s Sophia Purdy-Moore

In 2020, the appalling treatment of 15-year-old Child Q highlighted the traumatising and dehumanising nature of police strip searches against children. Child Q was dragged out of an exam at her school in Hackney to be strip searched by police while she was on her period and without an appropriate adult present, after teachers accused her of smelling of cannabis. 

Her shocking experience is by no means an isolated incident. By contrast, this example of excessive and disproportionate policing is reflective of the everyday experiences of children of colour. Indeed, in 2022, we heard devastating news of the strip search of 15-year-old Olivia, whose appalling experience echoed that of Child Q. 

In the wake of these high-profile cases, the Children’s Commissioner published a report revealing the extent to which strip search is disproportionately used against children of colour, especially Black boys and young men. The analysis found that police in England and Wales strip searched almost 3,000 children (aged 8-17) between 2018 and 2022, targeting Black children at a rate six times higher than the general population.

‘Black children are targeted by police in over a quarter of all strip searches of children’

Meanwhile, the Runnymede Trust’s analysis of new Home Office data shows that despite comprising just over 5 per cent of the child population of England and Wales, Black children are targeted by police in over a quarter of all strip searches of children. This stark racial disparity points to the ways in which police systematically target, and therefore traumatise, Black children through strip searches.

In this context, it is alarming that the government’s proposed changes to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) codes of practice relating to the strip search of children fall so short of addressing these issues. The proposals, a set of vague suggestions that claim to ‘strengthen the safeguards for children’, only reinforce the authority of the police to strip search children. As the Children’s Commissioner found, officers are already failing to comply with existing statutory safeguards designed to protect children, with more than half of strip searches taking place without an appropriate adult present, and many being conducted in inappropriate places such as schools, police vehicles and even in public view. Strengthening safeguards is meaningless if officers are already failing to adhere to existing ones. 

Further, as grassroots campaigners seeking to end the practice have highlighted, even when officers adhere to safeguards, a strip search is always a deeply traumatising, degrading and humiliating experience for a child. Nothing could possibly justify subjecting a child to what campaigners have labelled ‘state sanctioned sexual assault’. 

Speaking to the trauma caused by her experience, Child Q said, ‘I can’t go a single day without wanting to scream, shout, cry, or just give up.’ These are heartbreaking words to hear from a child, whose main concern should be her exam results and summer plans. No amount of red tape can forestall the lifelong social, emotional and mental harm caused by such a violation. 

Though it is a highly problematic metric by which to measure success, the fact that no further action was taken following over half of strip searches of children between 2018 and 2022 underscores the futility of the practice, and suggests that it is more accurately described as a tool for control and intimidation rather than a legitimate safeguarding measure. 

‘These measures will always undermine children’s safety and cause deep, irreparable harm’

From strip search to school exclusions, the Prevent duty and police and surveillance technologies in schools, false notions of children’s welfare and safeguarding are repeatedly cited to justify the expansion and normalisation of carceral practices in their everyday lives. We are consistently told that our children are surveilled, policed and criminalised to keep themselves, their peers, and the public safe. But whether directly or indirectly, these measures will always undermine children’s safety, and cause deep, irreparable harm, with working-class children of colour bearing the brunt.

As set out in the Runnymede Trust’s submission to the government’s call for evidence, anyone sincerely committed to children’s safety should be calling for an immediate end to the use of strip search against them. Keeping children safe should be an absolute priority. But to achieve this in any meaningful way, we must redefine what we mean by safeguarding to ensure it stops normalising and creating conditions for the violation of children's rights, dignity and welfare. 

We need to develop new approaches, such as those outlined in Maslaha’s Radical Safeguarding workbook, which confront the cultures and structures that routinely inflict harm and violence on children, prioritise care over punishment, and meet children’s need for spaces to learn, express themselves and exist without fear. 

In this increasingly punitive society, we must be far more ambitious in our vision for our young people’s present and future. This means developing approaches that go beyond tinkering around the edges of the harmful systems and practices currently in place, towards new ones that create genuine safety and security for everyone. Ending the use of strip search against children is a crucial and actionable – albeit small – step towards creating a world in which we genuinely prioritise the safety, protection and wellbeing of all young people.

Sophia Purdy-Moore is communications and engagement manager at the Runnymede Trust. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.

Join the fight for racial justice: support the Runnymede Trust’s work by making a donation.

Photo: © iStock/Ceri Breeze

Write for us

Why not write for Britain's number one race equality think tank? We are always interested in receiving pitches from both new and established writers, on all matters to do with race.

Share this blog


Join our mailing list

Join our community and stay up to date with our latest work and news.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.