A 14-year-old girl of mixed white and black ethnicity was so traumatised after being strip-searched by Metropolitan police officers that she tried to kill herself, her mother has said.
Olivia, not her real name, was menstruating when she was handcuffed and searched in front of male officers after more than 20 hours in custody.
Her mother, Lisa, also not her real name, had told officers her daughter was autistic, had learning difficulties and had been self-harming, according to an investigation by BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 programme.
Lisa said the ordeal had a devastating impact on Olivia’s mental health. “She became quite reclusive. She spent a lot of time in her room and she continued to self-harm in secret. She was saying that she’s not going to be here any more and she’s not going to live to be an adult,” she told the programme.
A few weeks later, Lisa said, Olivia attempted to take her own life.
The incident happened in December 2020, the same month that a 15-year-old black girl known as Child Q was strip-searched while menstruating by Met officers at her school in Hackney, east London. A safeguarding review concluded that racism was likely to have been a factor.
Lisa told the programme she believed “racial stereotyping” was a factor in her daughter’s case. She said Olivia had been out with some friends when they had a disagreement with two boys who called the police and alleged they were the victims of an attempted knifepoint robbery. Nothing was discovered when Olivia was searched by police but she and her friends were arrested.
Lisa was isolating with Covid-19 at the time but made repeated calls to the police station to raise concerns about Olivia’s background and her mental health.
After more than 20 hours in custody, Olivia was discovered to be in possession of a sharpened stick which she used to self-harm, her mother said. Officers then handcuffed Olivia, before pinning her down, cutting her underwear and strip-searching her in the presence of male officers.
Lisa said: “She was absolutely distraught. She said to me that they’d smashed her head on the cell floor and that they had [her] underwear off and that there was male officers there at the time as well.
“And not only that, Olivia was actually on her period at the time too. And they used, I don’t know whether it was a knife or a pair of scissors, to cut off her underwear in front of these grown male officers, which I feel is not right.”
Olivia later appeared in court accused of possession of a bladed weapon and was acquitted.
Gail Hadfield Gardner, a lawyer who is representing the family in a civil case against the force, said rules had to be followed when searching minors. “The legal guardian, the person that has responsibility for that child needs to be informed. The strip-search needs to be done in front of same-sex staff only, not same-sex staff with the opposite sex onlooking,” she said.
The Met’s deputy assistant commissioner Laurence Taylor told the programme that an investigation was under way, which “will determine the appropriateness of the search and the way that it was conducted”.
More than 13,000 young people under the age of 18 have been strip-searched in England and Wales since 2017, data obtained by File on 4 shows. The programme said separate data showed that two-thirds of children who had been strip-searched by the Met over the past three years were from ethnically diverse backgrounds.
Taylor defended the force’s record, claiming searches was based on “intelligence-led policing”.
The programme will air on Radio 4 at 8pm on Tuesday.