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Tinuke Fagborun

Child Q’s case is not an isolated incident. That’s why we’re campaigning to end strip searches

content warning

The trauma and violence police enact through strip search severely impacts Black youth at an alarming scale - and it must end.

13 Apr

Content warning: This article contains mention of sexual assault and child abuse

“You can’t do nothing about it. But at first, you feel weird innit. A next man telling you to take off your clothes and that. You’ll be dealing with it straight away. You’re just a little kid now. You feel…it makes you feel as bad as someone who’s a victim of sexual assault, innit? […] ‘Cos a next man is telling you: ‘take off all that’ without your consent. Without your will.”

These are the words of one 4FRONT member reflecting on the impact of strip search. As other children and young people have recorded in mounting testimonies, media appearances and in their communities, strip search is frightening, traumatic and degrading.

The release of the safeguarding report about the devastating and traumatic experience of Child Q, a Black girl strip searched in a Hackney school in 2020 without an appropriate adult present, brought this issue to national attention. When we read her story at 4FRONT, our member-led youth organisation empowering young people and communities to fight for justice, peace and freedom, we had no words for the brutality and pain of what she had been subjected to by teachers and police alike. But part of our pain on reading her words came from the fact that we were not shocked. This is common. 

“Strip search is another tool through which police officers intimidate, terrorise and degrade Black people in the UK”

The list of police officers’ routine abuses of power over children and young people, particularly young Black people, is a long one. Stop and searches, higher arrest rates and heavier sentencingthe use of Scorpion drivers who are trained to collide with young people on mopeds, regular altercations and restraint that can leave lifelong injuries, and sometimes kill. Strip search is part of this picture. It is another tool through which police officers intimidate, terrorise and degrade Black people in the UK. It happens to adults, and recently was the source of a £6,000 payout and apology to an academic. It also routinely happens to children. 

To say ‘every day’ is not an exaggeration. A recent FOI request found that in the last five years, 172,093 people were strip searched by the Metropolitan Police alone. Over 9,000 of these were conducted on children, averaging five children a day. Those figures only cover London, and only refer to strip searches in custody. This is the tip of an iceberg. Within 4FRONT’s own membership of children and young people, 60% of whom have been strip searched multiple times, we know all too well that these searches do not only happen in custody. From reports we have received from many others, it can happen on the street, in police vans, or even in children’s own homes. 

“Strip searches leave children reeling with the impact of sexual assault in which multiple adults that are supposed to protect them have taken part”

Wherever these searches take place, they are always traumatic, degrading and dehumanising. Children are left to cope with the experience of being forced to remove their clothes in front of adults and comply with orders to expose themselves. Children and young people we work with discuss experiences of: being strip searched multiple times in the same day, to police officers laughing and taunting them during searches, to police making derogatory requests for them to comply with whilst naked in front of multiple officers, and to being intimidated by police when they advocate for their rights during a search. Strip searches leave children reeling with the impact of sexual assault in which multiple adults that are supposed to protect them have taken part. 

4FRONT and a host of partner youth and campaigning organisations are releasing young people’s testimonies of these experiences as part of the End Strip Search campaign. Set up by a coalition of groups working with young people, the campaign looks to have this practice outlawed, particularly when used against children. In just ten days of its existence, the campaign has garnered over 500 supporters willing to take action on ending strip search. This testimony has been collected in a safe and supported way with trained professionals. All young people indicated to us the profound adverse impact the traumatic experience of strip search had on their mental health. Some discussed the kinds of shame, suicidal feelings, fear and post traumatic symptoms they experienced. 

The campaign is part of an outcry and fightback from across the UK, where hundreds have protested in recent weeks after Child Q’s experience came to light. Existing campaigns calling for the protection of Black girlhood, or fighting against normalising police officers being based in schools, received renewed attention. The spotlight shone on many community-based campaigns for justice, peace and freedom. End Strip Search is part of this. 

And the Metropolitan Police, in part, responded. Under the weight of years of scandals and scrutiny, they have launched a ‘pilot scheme’ that will see strip searches only authorised by officers of Inspector rank and above in Hackney and Tower Hamlets. From our decade of experience working with young people at the sharp end of the criminal legal system, we know this measure will do next to nothing. State-sanctioned sexual assault in the form of strip search will continue. 

“The issue is not one of inadequate bureaucratic safeguards. It is one of routine violence”

We know from our work that police already routinely ignore the existing safeguards and protocols around strip search.  These abuses of power have become so entrenched in police approaches to strip searches, and will not simply be alleviated by empty gestures towards better ‘oversight’. The issue is not one of inadequate bureaucratic safeguards. It is one of routine violence. 

Beyond this, even when these bureaucratic boxes are ticked, a child is still traumatised. 4FRONT staff have acted as appropriate adults in strip searches, and themselves have been incredibly disturbed by the experience. Tick boxes that window dress this unabashedly violent practice will not result in the freedom, healing, justice, protection, safety and peace that young people, and all our communities, need. The step towards that looks like ending the harmful practice of strip searches, not decorating it with new protocols. When the law permits police to sexually assault children every day, it’s time to change the law. End Strip Search. 

To join the campaign, head to endstripsearch.co.uk and sign up for updates.

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