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The Evaluation of Children's Hearings in Scotland: Volume 3 - Children in Focus


The University of Edinburgh, from 1995-1997, carried out this study of children and young people referred to the Children's Hearings system in February 1995. The research centred on an exploration of the backgrounds and personal circumstances of 1,155 children involved in the hearings system at that time. It focused on changes in their circumstances over time, the views of parents and some young people about their experiences of the system, and outcomes in relation to compulsory measures of supervision.


The personal and social circumstances of the children at the beginning of the study indicated that most were growing up in economic disadvantage compared to other children in Scotland. Many were experiencing multiple disadvantage and family disruption. The research established that:

  • the majority of the children were living at home with at least one parent
  • more children came from lone parent families than from any other family grouping
  • the majority of the children's families were living in local authority accommodation
  • state benefit was often the main source of the children's families' income
  • the vast majority of children aged between 5 and 15 years at 1 February 1995 were enrolled in school
  • just under one-fifth of children had at least one type of health problem or disability.

Official histories of the children prior to 1 February 1995

Official histories of the children, obtained by analysing national annual statistics (SWS21 records), showed that nearly three-quarters of the children referred during the survey period had a prior history of involvement in the hearings system. The average age of referral was just over 11 years but the most common age was 14 years. The most common reason for referral, consistent with national statistics, was offending. A notable proportion of referrals (28.7%) was made on non-offence grounds. The most common non-offence grounds were lack of parent care and victimisation. The reasons for referral often changed over time. The research found that:

  • there were strong statistical links between age, sex and grounds of referral. Younger girls were more likely to be referred for lack of parental care, while older boys were more likely to be referred for offences
  • the grounds for a child's first-ever referral to the Children's Hearings system were significantly related to age. Children under 12 years were significantly more likely to have at least one referral for lack of parental care or victimisation
  • children referred for offences were also significantly more likely to come to the attention of Reporters for the first time between 5 and 11 years. Children, referred for offences at a young age (47.8% of the sample), were likely to have come to the attention of the Reporter initially on other grounds
  • children began their involvement in the Children's Hearings system young, on average at 8.7 years, slightly older for boys. Referral of children to the Reporter at a young age appeared to be an early warning signal of a child in serious difficulty
  • three factors were commonly associated with referrals to hearings over time: the number of referrals; the source of referrals (social work departments, education more influential); and gender - girls were much more likely to be referred on grounds of falling into bad associations, exposure to moral danger, lack of parental care or victimisation. Boys were more likely to be referred on offence grounds
  • referrals from social work, education and parents were significantly more likely to result in a supervision requirement. Roughly 60% of referrals from police were diverted
  • age, sex and grounds of referral had a clear bearing on supervision requirements for children over time. Younger girls were given supervision requirements for falling into bad associations, exposure to moral danger, lack of parental care or victimisation. Older boys tended to be given supervision requirements for offending
  • children referred for offences at a young age were less likely to have their supervision requirements terminated than those who had them imposed at an older age.

The children: one and two years on

By February 1996 approaching half (45%, n=1,140) of the children were under supervision. A large number of these were males in the 12 to 15 years age-grouping. The living circumstances of the children at February 1996 and one year later were similar. Two-fifths of those still subject to supervision were living at home, and over a third were living away from home in foster care or in a residential home or school. Reporters knew considerably more about children under supervision. The following facts emerged:

  • lone parenting remained a feature of the children's family life
  • offending and parental alcohol misuse, issues identified by Reporters at the outset of the study, remained a concern for children under supervision one and 2 years on
  • in 1995, 77% of referrals came from the police, and there was a similar trend for new referrals in 1996 with 941 (n=1,141) police referrals. Boys continued to predominate in these referrals, as was the case with the children in 1995 in our study. These findings reflected the national statistics. Girls were more likely to be referred on care and protection grounds
  • Reporters referred the majority of children to a hearing rather than to social work on a voluntary basis or to juvenile liaison
  • the age distribution of children receiving a supervision requirement in 1996 was identical to that in 1995. Most children were 14 or 15 years of age
  • in 1995 and 1996 most supervision requirements released children to the care of their parents or guardians
  • in the years 1995 and 1996, children more often had their supervision requirements terminated when older, especially at age 15. Sex differences continued to influence supervision termination. Older boys and younger girls were more likely to have their supervision ended.

Children who offend

The social circumstances of the 465 cohort children referred for offences in February 1995 were broadly similar to the cohort as a whole, although in some instances slightly more favourable. Young people who were jointly reported by the police to the Reporter and the Procurator Fiscal experienced, in many instances, greater social adversity than the cohort did as a whole. The children's social background was characterised by family poverty, disruption and difficulty. Many had poor educational experiences and/or had been in public care. Many children were considered to have care needs, in addition to offending. The research found that:

  • some children were considered to be lacking in adequate care and support; to have parent-child difficulties, and/or to have a current drug or alcohol problem in their own right
  • most of the offences reported were of a non-violent nature, with a small group (8%) responsible for more than a quarter of offences reported. Almost three-quarters (74%) of the children had been referred for offending in the past, and over half (57%) had been placed on supervision prior to February 1995
  • the average age of first referral to the system was 10.2 years. Over half (54%) of those referred for reasons of offending in February 1995 had no action taken, and over a third (37%) appeared before a hearing, the majority of whom (77%) were placed on supervision. By 1997, jointly reported young people were responsible for an extraordinary number of offences; 1,870 were recorded against them in Scottish Criminal Records Office (SCRO) records
  • of the 256 children investigated, 130 of them (113 males and 17 females) had a criminal conviction by February 1997. Over a quarter (28%) of them had received at least one period of detention before they were 18 years of age, and a third (30% n=130) had appeared in the adult criminal courts before their final termination of supervision under the Children's Hearings. Nearly all (94%, n=36) of the young people who received custody had been subject to a supervision requirement in the Children's Hearings system between 1 February 1995 and 1 February 1997. The average age of last recorded supervision termination was 16 years 6 months
  • though a small proportion of the work of the system, the joint-reporting of young people caused many dilemmas at the interface of the children's and adult systems. Most of the young people had experienced major social adversities, had long histories in the Children's Hearings system, and had been subject to supervision at some time in their lives. Many were subject to supervision at the time of the survey at 1 February 1995. A number had experienced neglect and abuse in childhood, and had recorded psychological or psychiatric difficulties - alcohol and drug misuse represented a serious problem for some of the young people and was a major concern of professionals. Just under half (46%) had experienced public care
  • the category 'jointly reported' may be a good predictor of high risk of future custody, since, within 2 years of the survey period, over a third had experienced custody in the adult criminal justice system before age 18. The category may prove an effective mechanism for identifying young people who are amongst the most 'vulnerable' in terms of their social characteristics and offending behaviour, and may help in setting priorities. There may be scope for dealing with more jointly reported young people aged 16 and 17 years outwith the adult criminal justice system.
  • most jointly reported children and young people had had supervision in the Children's Hearings system terminated at some time in 1995, possibly at the peak of their offending activity. The most common reason recorded for termination was non-co-operation or that they had 'outgrown the system'
  • SCRO statistical data indicated that many young people, once in the adult system, ended up in custody within 2 years of the survey period. The study found that, on the whole, when Procurators Fiscal were deciding whether to divert jointly reported young people, to deal with them in the adult criminal justice system or to retain them in the Children's Hearings system, they had limited information available on which to base their decision.

Parents' and children's views of the system

Parents and children perceived the system as generally 'fair' and felt that their views were listened to by the Reporter, and at the hearing. In the majority of cases, people felt that they were adequately informed about what the process would involve for them at different stages. Nevertheless, in a minority of cases, there were some concerns about the absence of communication, and the failure to notify people of their legal rights or of the likely possible outcomes of hearings. Broadly speaking, most respondents saw the need for having a Children's Hearings system, although some felt that it was not appropriate in their particular case. It emerged from the research that:

  • panel members were seen in a positive light and responded sympathetically to the circumstances of individual cases. Nevertheless, some respondents indicated that it would be better if panel membership were more consistent over time
  • in a minority of cases, people found it difficult to distinguish between the role of the hearing and that of the social work department
  • there was a feeling felt that some older children, especially those who have offended, did not take the system wholly seriously
  • while some parents saw hearings as potentially intimidating and throwing their abilities as parents into question, it was true, nonetheless, that some had come to recognise their own 'problems' only as a result of involvement
  • despite some of these tensions and adversities, most wished to see the system continued
  • several respondents commented on the professionalism of the Reporters, the sympathy of panel members and on the adequacy of social work supports.