Howard League urges ban on detaining under 14s in police cells
Police should be banned from detaining children under 14 in police cells overnight, campaigners have said.
The Howard League for Penal Reform said the "dangerous and frightening practice" did more harm than good.
It said at least 11,540 under 14s were held in England and Wales between 2008 and 2009 - a figure based on replies from 24 out of the 43 forces.
The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) said it did not take the decision to detain youths lightly.
The figures released to the campaign group under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that 52,847 children under 16 were held overnight in 2008 and 2009 - of which 11,500 were under 14.
But the charity said the figures were likely to be much higher.
The Metropolitan Police - Britain's largest force - was amongst the 19 that did not provide figures, it said.
Howard League chief executive Frances Crook said: "I was horrified to discover how prevalent the practice of holding young children in police cells for one or even several nights was across the country.
"What children need is somewhere safe, not somewhere secure.
"From conversations we have had with the police it seems that some children are being held in police cells for child protection reasons, for example when a child is found out alone at night.
"The Howard League is warning that this will increase as local authorities face cuts to children's services.
"If parents can't be relied upon to provide a safe place for these children, it is up to the local authority.
"A police cell is not an appropriate place for children, and this commonplace, dangerous and frightening practice does more harm than good."
The report's author said there was a break-down in the referral process between police custody and local authority accommodation.
Dr Layla Skinns, of the University of Sheffield, said: "Other options need to be explored, such as greater use of police bail or emergency foster care.
"And there needs to be less complexity in the legislation and greater accountability when the referral process breaks down."
Chief constable Andy Adams, from Acpo, said: "Taking an individual into police custody is a decision which police officers do not take lightly, particularly when they are dealing with young people."
He said where youngsters were detained because there were no other safe places available, arrangements were made "as quickly as possible" to work with partners in health and social care.
"However, when working late at night or when we cannot locate a young person's parents or appropriate carers, this is not always immediately achievable," he said.