'We're Here to Stop Children's Lives from Being Ruined' A POLICE TEAM IS WORKING CLOSELY WITH SOCIAL SERVICES AND HEALTH AND EDUCATION AUTHORITIES TO HELP PREVENT CHILD ABUSE

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Byline: Hayley Cuthbertson

SPECIALLY-TRAINED police child protection workers deal with hundreds of harrowing cases of abuse every year. Crime Reporter HAYLEY CUTHBERTSON speaks to the Coventry unit to find out what their job entails FEWER jobs in the police force can be more demanding and involving than the work of the child protection unit.

There were 860 referrals by social workers and uniformed officers last year to the unit, based at Little Park Street police station, involving child abuse.

Det Sgt Bob Harper, who heads the team of six full-time officers, admits that years in CID prepared him for most things, but not for dealing with some of the appalling cases of neglect of city children he has now seen.

The officers work hand in glove with social workers from the city council, and representatives from the health and education authorities.

Referring to the death of a young black girl in London last year, Sgt Harper said: "We don't want another Anna anywhere in the country.

"In Coventry we work very much on a partnership basis - we might all be coming at it from different angles, but each of them looks after the best interests of the child."

His ambition is to move two social workers into the police unit full- time so they can work even closer together.

Cases handled by police child protection workers include abuse by professional people - teachers, social workers, police officers, church or voluntary leaders - as well as "in-house" abuse, carried out by members of the family or step-relatives.

Sgt Harper estimates that 10 per cent of cases dealt with are instances of emotional abuse, and 20 per cent are parental neglect.

The remainder are split between sexual and physical abuse.

The officers provide round-the-clock cover, 365 days a year, ensuring that any vulnerable child in the city has a professional dedicated to coping with their needs.

Det Con Andy McCord, who has been with the unit for just over four years, says sometimes it is difficult not to get involved.

He explained: "As an officer you will be the one port of call for that child, to make it easier for them and to develop a trust, and if the case involves a criminal prosecution then you support them through the whole process of going to court and giving evidence."

The officers receive special training to interview the child on video tapes which may be played in court as evidence. They often use toys and pictures to help the child open up, and are not allowed to use leading questions so the youngster explains in their own words what has happened to them.

Some of the cases they have had to deal with in Coventry include the attempted rape of a three-month-old baby girl by her father.

Other children have been found living in squalor with no clothes, blankets or toys, while parents may enjoy a relatively comfortable lifestyle.

Det Sgt Bob Harper says removing a child from the family home is always seen as a "last resort", but it is a move he defends.

He said: "We will work with the other agencies to try a provide a package of care to meet the child's needs, but if that child is at risk then I would have no hesitation in knocking the door open and taking it away. …