CHILDREN are being raped, attacked, assaulted and ignored, according to a report which identified “widespread serious and systemic failings” by Essex Police.

Not investigating child on child rape is “common practice” and paedophiles are free to continue grooming children online even after reports are made because of massive backlogs and officers squabbling over who will handle the investigation.

This is according to a report, out today, from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, which concluded the force is failing to adequately protect children.

In July the mother of an eight-year-old girl reported her daughter had been gang raped by boys aged ten and 11 at the same school.

Police decided not to investigate, interview or forensically examine the victim and passed it to social services instead.

By August more victims were identified and the child was examined but there was still no police response.

Only when an inspector intervened in September did police officers launch an investigation.

The national child protection inspection report stated: “HMIC was concerned to find that this was not an isolated case but common practice.”

In another example a mother reported a 28-year-old man was contacting her 11-year-old daughter using sexualised language and trying to meet.

Police teams argued for 17 days over who should handle it.

A month later it was found the man had previously attempted to entice three ten-year-old girls to his home and had equipment to sexually assault them with.

The report concluded failures over the next 12 months included lost evidence, exhibits not being examined and key witnesses not being interviewed.

The report stated: “Further offences linked to this dangerous offender were identified but no action taken.”

HMIC inspector Zoe Billingham concluded overall staff are “insufficiently skilled and knowledgeable” and there is a “general lack of understanding” when it comes to recognising the signs of child sexual exploitation and abuse.

The protection of children who regularly go missing is “inconsistent” and plans to protect children from suspects are “ineffective”.

She said: “HMIC’s inspection revealed some serious weaknesses.

“I recognise the chief constable and his leadership team are deeply committed to improving the service for children but at the time of our inspection, in the autumn of 2015, this had yet to translate into improvements.”

Essex Police reviewed 33 investigations and concluded two were inadequate.

When looking at the same investigations HMIC said 20 were inadequate.

Ms Billingham added: “There are a number of areas HMIC has identified as need the force’s immediate attention.

“I am under no illusions there is a lot the force needs to do to provide children in Essex with the service they deserve.”

The police online investigation team is running with 18 month delays.

Digital analysis of computers belonging to suspected paedophiles is up to 12 months behind.

Incidents of parents physically abusing children were also not investigated properly, according to the report.

Chief Constable Stephen Kavanagh has apologised to the victims of child abuse who have been let down.

He confirmed Essex Police accepted the recommendations from the HMIC in full.

He said: “We have already acted on those recommendations by making what the same inspectors 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 same inspectors who came into the force last year have called the improvements we’ve made impressive and encouraging,”

During the past six months 33 child sex offenders have been jailed for a combined 180 years.

He added: “Our investigations, our perseverance, our work with partners and our sensitivity in supporting victims and their families made that happen.

“Similarly we dealt professionally and responsibly with the vast majority of more than 2,600 cases of children who went missing last year.”

Police and Crime Commissioner Nick Alston said he was “surprised and concerned” about the differences between what Essex Police and the HMIC was an adequate investigation.

He added: “Nothing is more important than protecting our children.

“The latest inspection report from HMIC makes for both difficult and disappointing reading.

"No Chief Constable or PCC wants to hear that their force is considered to be inadequately protecting at-risk children due to iwidespread serious and systemic failings'.

“The public of Essex will be rightly concerned at hearing this.

"Essex Police has a clear understanding of the problems highlighted and has made great strides to resolve issues and learn from them.

"It was Essex Police itself that identified the scale of the issues in late 2014 after which it introduced a comprehensive improvement programme.

"Significant progress has been made in the six months since HMIC inspectors visited.”

A spokesman for the NSPCC said: "This is a shocking report which exposes a frightening degree of neglect by Essex Police when it comes to child protection.

"It is completely unacceptable one of the country's biggest forces stands accused of widespread serious and systemic failings in protecting children from abuse.

"High profile child exploitation cases in places such as Rotherham and Rochdale should have sharply pulled into focus the failings of police forces elsewhere in investigating these crimes and supporting young victims.

"We take some comfort from the fact Essex Police has woken up to the problem and is seeking help to get more support.

"We will be keeping a close eye on its progress."