Inspectors criticise police over abuse inquiry conduct
Police in England and Wales have been accused of failing to carry out effective investigations into allegations of child abuse and neglect.
An Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) report looked at 576 cases across eight forces and suggests there was an "inadequate" response in 220 cases.
The National Police Chiefs Council acknowledged that forces had to "fundamentally change" their approach.
The Home Office said police would be given the resources to improve.
The report - In harm's way: The role of the police in keeping children safe - found "weaknesses and inconsistencies" at all stages of the child protection system.
Inspectors looked at the way the Norfolk, South Yorkshire, West Midlands, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, Nottingham, Dyfed-Powys and West Mercia forces had conducted investigations involving vulnerable children.
Of the 576 cases examined since 2013, 177 were found to have been dealt with to a good standard, while 220 were viewed as inadequate and 179 were deemed as adequate.
The HMIC said it was "surprised" to find that some officers accused children of crimes rather than treating them as potential victims. It also noted delays in gathering evidence, and said too little was done in some cases to arrest suspects.
It highlighted a case in which police and social services agreed, without consulting a medical practitioner, that the likely cause of vaginal bleeding in a four-year-old was eczema even though the child had made sexual allegations against a family member.
As a contrast, the way a detective who helped a 13-year-old who was having a sexual relationship with a 20-year-old, was also cited. The detective had quickly involved child care services, arrested the alleged perpetrator and took action to safeguard other children.
'At a crossroads'
Dru Sharpling, who led the inspections, said police were being "reactive rather than proactive".
"There is too much bureaucracy in the system so police officers are not really listening to children properly... they are perhaps more concerned with ticking boxes and filling out forms unnecessarily," she said.
"The degree of child abuse and child exploitation is probably unprecedented as far as we are aware so it seems to us that the police need to evolve and change in the way society has evolved."
BBC home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw said the inspectors were calling for an end to a target-driven approach to policing, where success is measured by crime figures, which has encouraged a focus on burglary and car crime.
Home Office minister Karen Bradley said: "This is difficult and complex work but police forces must do all they can to improve their response to child sexual abuse and exploitation.
"We are committed to ensuring police have the resources they need and we have prioritised child sexual abuse as a national threat, providing a clear mandate for forces to collaborate across force boundaries, to safeguard children and to share intelligence and best practice."
The National Police Chiefs Council - which represents senior ranking officers - said the HMIC found that "protecting vulnerable people is a priority for all police forces".
But Chief Constable Simon Bailey from the NPCC added: "We are at a crossroads. We have got to fundamentally change our approach to policing so that our absolute focus is on working proactively with other agencies to protect the public from harm committed on or offline."
NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless said a suggestion from HMIC that improvements were also needed in police investigations into online abuse was a "damning indictment".
He said: "Despite national commitments and the dedication of officers tackling these darkest of crimes, at a local level vital opportunities to protect children are being missed."