ESSEX Police are failing to protect children at risk of harm in Essex, investigators have found.
HM Inspectorate of Constabulary found insufficiently skilled staff at Essex Police carrying out child abuse investigations.
Those investigations were "often of a poor standard" and risk management was in some cases "ineffective", it said.
Chief Constable Stephen Kavanagh said the force accepted the HMIC’s recommendations.
Zoe Billingham, HM Inspector of Constabulary, said she was "extremely disappointed by what we found" when the inspection happened last autumn.
"We found, for example, that some officers had poor attitudes towards missing children, with assumptions being made about their ability to fend for themselves.
"Frontline officers also lacked a sound understanding of the warning signs that children might be at risk of child sexual exploitation. The majority of child protection cases examined by HMIC were inadequate or needed to improve.
"There are a number of areas that HMIC has identified as needing the force’s immediate attention. I am under no illusions that there is a lot that the force needs to do to provide children in Essex with the service they deserve."
However, she also said the force and its chief constable were "deeply committed to improving the service to children".
The key findings
Child abuse investigations undertaken by insufficiently skilled and knowledgeable staff and often of poor standard, leaving children at significant risk
General lack of understanding of signs of child sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of children, and inconsistent response from teams across the force
Protection of some children who regularly go missing from home "inconsistent"; early intervention and long-term inter-agency planning designed to protect children who go missing often "ineffective"
Ineffective management of risk posed by suspects in some cases of child abuse
Children unnecessarily detained in police custody
Mr Kavanagh said: "We have already acted on those recommendations by making what the same inspectors have called a ‘sea change’ and these improvements have made children safer.
"However, victims who did not get the best possible service from Essex Police are victims who were let down, and I repeat my previous unreserved apology for that.
"The changes in our culture and in how we work – consistently better quality investigation and risk assessment, more and better training for officers, a refusal to accept that a missing child returned home, whatever the circumstances, should ever be described as ‘streetwise’ – give me absolute confidence that this force is heading in the right direction."
In the past six months Essex Police’s investigations have led to 33 people being jailed for more than 180 years in total for sexual offences against children.
Nick Alston, Police and Crime Commissioner for Essex, said: "Despite the very disappointing news today, I know that day by day, Essex police officers continue to handle many cases well, and for that they have my full support."