This week a child safeguarding practice review went viral. The report is a disturbing read, an indictment of both the Metropolitan police and teachers at a secondary school in Hackney, east London. The teachers called police onto school premises and then allowed officers to perform a strip search on a 15-year-old girl in a medical room while they waited outside.
But it’s the testimony of the young black schoolgirl, referred to as Child Q, that has forced the country, once again, to reckon with its attitudes to race and its treatment of children whose skin colour isn’t white. Child Q’s statement, released through her solicitor, says: “Someone walked into my school, where I was supposed to feel safe, took me away from the people who were supposed to protect me and stripped me naked, while on my period. On the top of preparing for the most important exams of my life. I can’t go a single day without wanting to scream, shout, cry or just give up.”
What happened to Child Q is a brutal example of different oppressions coming together to blight the life of young black girls. For many of us, it’s familiar, triggering and not unusual. What’s rare in this case, however, is the public reckoning. Indeed, the incident, which took place more than a year ago, has been described in detail over and over again on social media, on broadcast news and in parliament. On Thursday Kemi Badenoch, the equalities minister, told parliament that the public horror at what happened was “an example of a country that cares about ethnic minorities and about children in the system”.
But I wonder: is it really an example of such sensibilities? Are we really a country that cares about “ethnic minorities” and “children in the system”? The way that black people, black children are seen by authorities with power over their lives, in schools, prisons, and secure settings can feel like an intangible thing to measure, but the impact of such treatment is physical, brutal and very real.
Jahnine Davis, director of the child safeguarding charity Listen Up, describes the treatment of Child Q as a result of “adultification bias”, whereby black, Asian and other ethnic minority communities are seen as being more grown up than they are. “Adultification leads to a dereliction of safeguarding duty, it decreases vulnerability while increasing culpability. It erases the notion of innocence. It’s beyond dehumanising,” Davis says.
This bias shouldn’t be news to us. In a book published in 1993, the Scottish civil liberties barrister Helena Kennedy recalls her early days at the criminal Bar, where she witnessed open racism. She described how in one case a “woman made the important point that even as a girl she had the physical appearance of a mature woman, and she was dealt with as such. She felt this assumption was often made about black girls if they were physically well developed.”
Video footage from two decades later, in 2012, shows a police officer interacting with a slight black woman in a small room at a clothes shop in central London. He is standing over her while she is seated. Suddenly he pulls her by hair and slams her to the ground, punching her, pinning her to the ground with his knees. The woman Sarah Reed, who had been suspected of shoplifting, ended the incident with two broken ribs. In October 2015, while held on a secure ward at Maudsley Hospital in south London, Sarah said she was victim of an attempted rape. She fought back and was charged with assault and remanded to prison. The case never made it to trial. After time in isolation, Sarah took her own life aged 32 on 11 January 2016.
What Kennedy witnessed and what we saw happen to Sarah Reed, and to so many others, is about how black people are seen in this country. Reasons given for the strip search of Child Q were that she smelled of cannabis, she had been searched for drugs previously (none were found) and that someone she knew had been expelled for drug possession. Her teachers viewed these as threats, rather than reasons to provide her with protection and support. This perception of black children isn’t confined to one school in Hackney. Black children make up just 4 per cent of 10 to 17-year-olds yet 18 per cent of stop and searches and 29 per cent of the youth custody population.
Statistics and stories of rights violated and humanity erased aren’t new — rarely do they make a splash. The sad thing is that, as a writer, often the most difficult thing is getting readers to engage with these stories of black and brown people, having to persuade them that we are human in the first place. Child Q’s mother puts this perfectly: “Why doesn’t my daughter deserve the same rights as every other child? Is this because they think she is a young girl, with no respect for her parents or adults and no fear of consequences or because she is a black child living in a poor city area?”
Child Q is a rare case: the public has recognised her humanity in retrospect. But Badenoch is wrong; hers is not an isolated case, and until we change the way we look at these stories, hers won’t be the last.