Police can take up to 18 months to make an arrest after becoming aware that a child is at risk of online sexual abuse, according to a report.
His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) found that forces’ response often leaves youngsters vulnerable and allows offenders to escape justice.
It said there are often “unacceptable delays and missed opportunities” in responding to allegations and concerns about suspects, and officers have “limited tools” to understand risk.
Many officers “don’t always follow lines of inquiry to find out who the suspect is and whether they are approaching children”, it added.
Very high-risk cases are often dealt with within a day but those deemed high, medium or low risk are often not responded to in the recommended timescales of a week, two weeks and 30 days.
In one case, officers did nothing for 18 months following a report from the National Crime Agency of two videos showing a nine-year-old girl being raped.
In the same force, more than 30 suspects had their risk incorrectly rated as low because of inadequate training.
In another “very high-risk” case, no assessment was carried out for four days after officers discovered that a suspect was living with his 15-year-old sister. He was later bailed to the same address.
The report also found that forces wait too long before sharing information with relevant partners such as the local authority.
The report said doing so “doesn’t take account of the force’s obligations” or “risks to children.”
While the number of “image-related cases” being referred to police by the National Crime Agency doubled between 2017 and 2021, chief constables “are not doing enough” to get to grips with the scale of the problem, HMICFRS found.
Some forces urge officers to tell children to reset their phone to factory settings, which can lead to evidence being lost.
The inspectorate also found that some forces have “drawn up their own criteria” for which cases to pursue based on resources rather than risk.
It said the Online Safety Bill could “significantly reduce” the amount of child sex abuse material online.
Its 17 recommendations include chief constables making sure that online child sex abuse cases are allocated to people with relevant skills and training and ensuring their force implements plans to deal with online child sex abuse within the recommended amount of time with immediate effect.
“Forces do not fully understand the scale of the problem, so there aren’t enough resources dedicated to these investigations.
“The Online Safety Bill represents a critical opportunity to tackle the growing amount of child sexual abuse material available online.
“However, chief constables cannot wait for this to be in place. They need to do more now to understand the demand on their forces and the risks posed by offenders.
“We have made 17 recommendations for chief constables, policing bodies and the Government to tackle online child sexual abuse and exploitation and would urge them to implement these without delay.”
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the report demonstrated “the total failure by the Conservative Government to make sure vulnerable children are protected from abuse”.
The Labour frontbencher added: “It’s clear the hard work of individual officers is being undermined by a lack of any proper support or strategy from the government.
“This hands-off Home Office approach is totally failing victims of this hideous crime.”
Anna Edmundson, head of policy at the NSPCC, said: “It’s vital we tackle these growing levels of harm to children online and today’s report highlights the crucial role that policing can play.
“Given the scale of this abuse, as well as equipping police to tackle perpetrators, it is crucial that tech companies also take action to prevent abuse from happening on their sites in the first place.
“It has become too easy for abusers to take advantage of the design features of social media and messaging platforms to harm children
“As this new report recommends, children who have experienced online sexual abuse and exploitation need to have access to support and therapeutic services to help them recover and move on with their lives.
“That’s why we’re calling on Government to strengthen the Victims and Prisoners Bill so it prioritises specialist support for child victims of abuse.”