Strip searches of children have been likened to a sexual assault and have long-lasting psychological effects, according to the Redfern Legal Centre. 

A new report by the Redfern Legal Centre (RLC), which has called for police reform for child strip searching, comes as NSW passes stricter bail laws for minors, a move criticised as causing more damage for children while ignoring calls to lift the age of criminal responsibility, and amend strip-search policies. 

Police accountability solicitor Samantha Lee, co-author of the report, told Central News: “There’s a huge power imbalance when a strip search takes place, they (children) feel as though they’ve been traumatised by police and therefore [are] very scared of police after that incident.   

“The only way I can describe it is like the young person has been sexually assaulted in terms of their physical and emotional response, and therefore when they see police it triggers that emotion.”  

The report revealed a high number of strip searches occur each year of children aged from 10 to 17, and accused police of under-reporting the total number. 

In total 1,546 children were strip searched in NSW between 2016-2023, with as few as 30 per cent for some ages resulting in items found on them, with the highest being 45 per cent, still less than half of those searched. Data showed the younger children were, the less likely items were found. 

The report made four recommendations to be implemented to reform NSW police procedures for child strip searches.  

The recommendations included amendments to legislation, primarily the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002. The RLC also called for all policies relating to child strip searches to align with the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations. 

The authors of the report detailed five key “lasting impacts” that affect children, including shame, trauma, and intimidation.   

We think the law is antiquated, it doesn’t protect the human rights of children and it needs to be changed as soon as possible.

“We’ve had young people who have lined up to enter a music festival and they’ve been taken straight from that line up to a tent where they’ve been asked to take off all of their clothes and stand naked in front of adults and then asked to squat,” she said. 

“It’s not just embarrassing but it’s, what people have even described as shameful even though they haven’t done anything wrong. It leaves a very deep impact on that person and police are undertaking these strip searches unlawfully.”  

Leo, not his real name, was strip searched when he was 16 after being arrested by police in Newtown on suspicion of assault. 

Now 22, he told Central News: “My experience with the Newtown police station was traumatic, being thrown into a paddy wagon while in handcuffs, being told I had to take my pants past my ankles at the age of 16, even though I was already searched and frisked before heading into the wagon. 

“I f**king hate them for what they did to me. [I] still have chills when I see them. I had little trust in them before, but there’s nothing left for them now.”  

Samantha Lee said a strip search creates a power imbalance between suspect and police because “they’ve been hugely disempowered by police”, which often leads to trauma and distrust. Reforming the law around strip searches would also improve community relations with police.  

“The main goal is to protect children and young people from harm,” she said. “We know strip searches are harmful, invasive, and lead to long-lasting impacts on those who have been subject to a strip search.  

“We think the law is antiquated, it doesn’t protect the human rights of children and needs to be changed as soon as possible.” 

Police minister for NSW Yasmin Catley told National Indigenous Times there had been meetings in recent months to assess current policy settings; to see “whether they’re fit for purpose”. 

Main image by Neerav Bhatt/Flickr.