Devon and Cornwall Police child protection criticised
Devon and Cornwall Police has been ordered to make immediate improvements after an inspection found officers lacked understanding about the extent of child sexual exploitation.
A HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) report said some children were reported missing more than 10 times without safeguarding action taken.
The force said it had made considerable improvements since the report.
HMIC had concerns about a "significant" number of child protection cases.
In one, a 13-year-old girl sent explicit images of herself to an older man on 30 occasions. Inspectors said police had closed the investigation before completing inquiries to identify the man.
Another involved the alleged sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl by her friend's father. The police had neither arrested the man nor considered the "wider risk" he might pose.
The inspectorate also found the protection of some children who regularly go missing from home was inconsistent.
It said although the initial response to locate the child was often good, early intervention and long-term inter-agency planning was often ineffective.
The NSPCC said "urgent action" was required by Devon and Cornwall police to protect children, both in care, and in their own homes.
An NSPCC spokesperson said: "It is simply not good enough in the wake of so many child sexual exploitation cases for police to say they still don't understand the links between children repeatedly going missing from care and the risk of those children being groomed for abuse.
"Urgent action is needed so that all officers and backroom staff know the value of early intervention, good record keeping and, most importantly, listening and acting swiftly when children or parents report concerns."
HM Inspector of Constabulary, Wendy Williams, said: "Devon and Cornwall Police demonstrated a strong commitment to improving services for the protection of vulnerable people.
"However, while we found a number of examples of good work to protect children, this commitment has not yet resulted in consistently improved outcomes for children."
The report said some investigations into serious cases were undertaken by insufficiently skilled and knowledgeable staff.
Det Supt Paul Northcott, head of Devon and Cornwall's public protection unit, said it was developing a "fresh approach" to the way it assessed risk and was providing staff with extra training.
"We recognise that we have to continue to improve the services we deliver and we have embraced a considerable amount of change already in response to this report," he said.
HMIC has given the force six weeks to set out an action plan of how it will respond to the findings.
The report is part of a rolling programme of child protection inspections of police forces in England and Wales.