Another day, another child detained in police custody for a protracted period in sensitive circumstances. This time it was under the Mental Health Act as a place of safety and she was there for 44hrs “without food or drink”. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary came across the case when undertaking a routine inspection of child protection issues in Nottinghamshire. Their report covered very many more issues and areas than mentally unwell children in custody, but this was very much the headline story. When I first read about it on the BBC news website the headline made it look deliberately tortuous on the part of the police, as if they had deliberately denied her food and drink. Reading the article in full, Assistant Chief Constable Steve JUPP explained that she had been repeatedly offered food and drink but had declined those offers and the headline was altered later in the day.
I admit to the wording of report itself is curious (p23) –
“The most serious case seen by inspectors involved a 16-year-old girl who was detained for 52 hours in the central police custody suite before being transferred to a healthcare setting. It was only after the girl had been in custody for 44 hours that custody staff realised that she had gone without food or water. She was subsequently treated by a paramedic before being taken to hospital.”
The police cannot force those in their custody to eat and drink – it’s against the law! I wondered whether this meant that she was repeatedly offered sustenance but the first point where her repeated refusals were assimilated into one broader, cumulative concern was almost two days after her arrival? Easily done when custody shifts are changing three times a day. Ordinarily, everyone who comes into custody is fine within 12-24hrs and I’ve often wondered how long you would let someone detained under the MHA remain there if they are not eating or drinking? At what point do they become unfit to be there at all, if they ever were?
This situation is exactly the sort of thing that the Home Affairs Select Committee said only last must “immediately stop”. The Government indicated in their review of sections 135/6 of the Mental Health Act that they will legislate to prevent this sort of thing in future because it is very far from being the first case to outrage us in recent times and some might wonder what other kinds of outrage we have to learn about to ensure that it doesn’t happen again?
AGAIN AND AGAIN
We are only a few months on from the case of the 16-year-old in police cells in and you may or may not remember that one feature of the MS v UK human rights case heard in 2012 was a detainee who refused to eat or drink, probably because his condition being so acute he was paranoid that police officers were trying to poison him. It should come as no surprise that some very unwell people often don’t react well to the police. In the MS v UK case it was remarked that the patient was in “dire need or psychiatric treatment” that could not be undertaken in police custody.
So whilst the media were having a discussion about the almost torture-like deprivation of food and drink, no-one was adequately questioning why that situation came about in the first place? Any person detained under the Mental Health Act should expect admission to a mental health place of safety and police custody will only be used as a last resort, after the consideration of alternatives. That this young woman was in the cells at all indicates a lack of accessible NHS provision. I don’t know whether Nottinghamshire is one of those areas where u18s are denied access on the basis of age, or whether the PoS was full at the time of her original detention. But we can also infer from ACC JUPP that she had been assessed under the Mental Health Act so perhaps the protracted delay meant another situation in which a decision to admit had been taken, but there was no bed?
So whilst acknowledging that there will always learning for the police in these difficult cases, maybe the headline to the article should have read, “Police safeguard a young woman because of lack of available NHS services” or similar?!
Winner of the Mind Digital Media Award.