(CNN) – More than 100 school-age girls — including two as young as 12 — have been strip searched by police in Australia’s most populous state over the past three years, according to official figures.
The statistics — obtained under freedom of information laws by non-profit community legal organization Redfern Legal Center — show that 122 girls aged 12 to 17 were strip searched in New South Wales (NSW) between 2016 and 2019.
Two of the girls were 12, eight were 13, and seven were 14, the figures show.
Overall, almost 4,000 girls and women of all ages were strip searched over that period, with the most common reason being to search for drugs.
Police are allowed by law to carry out strip searches if they suspect on reasonable grounds that it is necessary. Officers can strip search children aged between 10 and 18 if they are with a parent or guardian, or if they are in the presence of another person.
NSW Police Minister David Elliott has defended police actions, saying he would want his own children strip searched if police thought they had done something wrong.
But Samantha Lee, the head of police accountability practice at Redfern Legal Center, said the legal thresholds were insufficient, and the law should be changed to prohibit the strip searching of children without a court order.
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“Girls as young as twelve and thirteen, some just finishing primary school, are being taken by police to a strange place and ordered by someone with a huge amount of power to take off their clothes,” Lee said in a statement Wednesday.
While police did not provide figures on the number of women who were being asked to squat, Lee said there was evidence that this was happening in some cases. Police also told the center that they did not have data on the number of girls asked to lift their breasts during the searches.
In a press conference Wednesday, Elliot defended the rules, saying one third of the people who had been searched had been found guilty of committing an offense.
“If your kid was the one buying the drugs of that 34%, I think you’d be pretty happy that they got found out,” he said. “I’ve got young children, and if the police felt that they were at risk of doing something wrong, I’d want them strip searched.”
“We have 10-year-olds who are engaged in terrorism activity,” he added.
CNN has reached out to Elliot for comment.
Before the statistics were released, authorities were already facing criticism for their strip search policies.
Vicki Sentas, a senior lecturer in law at the University of New South Wales, told CNN that the practice of strip-searching young women was not just humiliating and intrusive — in some cases, it was also unlawful. Over the past decade, police had increased their use of strip searches, partly due to their attempt to crack down on the use of drugs at music festivals, she said.
According to CNN affiliate SBS, the NSW Law Enforcement Conduct Commission has been investigating a complaint that a 16-year-old girl was illegally searched by NSW police at a festival last year.
In a commission hearing last month, the girl described how she was told to get completely naked and squat in front of a female police officer. “I could not believe that this was happening to me. I could not stop crying. I was completely humiliated,” she said, according to the transcript.
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