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The Evaluation of Children's Hearings in Scotland: Volume 4 - Where do we go from here? Conference Proceedings

FIRST RESPONSE TO DECIDING IN CHILDREN'S INTERESTS

MRS PENNY SIMPSON CHAIRMAN OF ABERDEEN CITY'S CHILDREN'S PANEL AND CHAIRMAN OF THE CHILDREN'S PANEL CHAIRMEN'S GROUP

INTRODUCTION

This paper responds to the Main Findings noted on the first page of the Social Work Research Findings No. 25 (appended).

RESOURCES

Research Finding - Panel members and professionals agreed that the greatest weakness of the system was the shortage of resources which affected the quality of service which could be delivered to meet identified needs.

The Chairmen's Group would have welcomed taking the research a step further - are decisions actually implemented once made and also does the lack of a suitable facility make a decision purely academic?

What are the criteria for a panel member's decision? Is the decision truly in the best interests of the child or is there an added proviso - depending on the resources available at the time. -And when it comes to resources - we're not just talking schemes and projects but people - social workers and project workers as well.

Currently, resources seem to be channelled into long term, deep-rooted problems. We well understand that resources are finite - but then perhaps we need to be far more innovative with the funding available.

Early intervention would facilitate decision making. If children were identified as needing additional support at an early stage, maybe some preventative work could be achieved. Too often we're fighting fires when making decisions and choosing a placement because it's available - not because it is the best possible resource for this child in need. Panel members will decide to remove a child from his or her home if deemed really necessary. But we suggest that sometimes this is because there is no appropriate alternative. Across the country there are few facilities for intensive work with children, work that maintains and supports the child in continued residence at his or her home.

And as for secure accommodation - we really need to have a long, hard look at this resource.

The Chairmen's Group firmly believes that children who are placed in secure accommodation for offence and danger to the public criteria are still as vulnerable as the children who abscond and place themselves in danger and mutilate themselves. We still believe in the basic precept 'needs not deeds'.

But we have to look very hard at how these young people are being looked after and scrutinise the work being conducted with them

CARE AND PROTECTION, TRUANCY AND PERSISTENT OFFENDERS

Research Finding - Professionals and panel members considered that the system responded more effectively to children and young people referred for care and protection than to those referred for non-attendance at school and persistent offenders.

Kilbrandon's original concept of caring for the whole child has successfully stood the test of time when it comes to child protection. The speed with which care and protection measures are instigated ensures that a child is removed from risk. We must not, however, become complacent. Cases which hit the news headlines will remind us that we must avoid becoming self-congratulatory. All cases need to be approached with care, with caution, with forethought.

And the persistent truant. This is not the child who is difficult in class and who seems to teeter on the verge of exclusion. For the disruptive child in school, education and social work departments seem to be working together and we welcome the community schools and similar projects which might manage to prevent some behavioural exclusions. However, the persistent truant is the child who may be excluded for failure to attend. And what about this silent few - who cause no difficulties as such - they simply do not go to school. This is another group of children that we have to reach. All the relevant agencies within a local authority must create a partnership or corporate response. And yes, it is still appropriate for hearings to receive truancy referrals, but the referral must be made quickly, before behaviour becomes entrenched. There is no room for disputes between the social work department and Education about ownership of this problem.

To quote the researchers: 'Powers of Reporters and panel members to command resources are limited in contrast to some others such as sheriffs in the criminal justice system.' But doesn't this simply reflect the perception of the hearings system in comparison with the criminal justice system? Wouldn't there be more respect for the hearings system if Reporters and panel members could make such demands?

The persistent offender must have started off with a clean sheet at one time. So how did we fail this child?

An article in the Sunday Times on 7 February 1999 described how a panel member told the Stirling research team that we now need 'the big stick'. The article added that the police seem to suggest that we need to get tougher, lock up more children - that 86 places in secure accommodation is insufficient. Really? Do we really want to lock up more children?

There is a suggestion that there needs to be a youth court with a judge. Surely not. Let me remind you that when the Kilbrandon Committee was set up, it was felt that sheriff courts and justice-of-the-peace courts were out of touch with young people. Do we really want to go back in time?

Instead, let's go back to basics, the fundamental principle is still that these children have needs - whether it's guidance or control - these children still have needs. And perhaps that need is to be made aware of the impact of their behaviour on the community - to face up to the impact of their behaviour on victims.

Again, to quote the researchers: 'The dominant discourse of welfare within the system' - this is held up as some sort of obstacle.

Just because the system is welfare based does not mean that we are 'the soft option'. We would welcome the opportunity to require a child to complete alcohol or drug-awareness training, or to receive intensive counselling, or even to be involved in some form of reparation.

Surely this is not so out of line with the ethos of the system, but a natural progression in the long-term welfare of the child.

But, you know, in order to achieve this, we need the persistent offender to be referred to the hearings system long before he/she earns that title.

TIME-SCALES

Research Finding - Reporters made decisions in less than a month in almost a third of study cases but took more than 2 months in 39%. Their decision making was quicker for referrals on offence grounds than care and protection grounds (71% and 43% respectively in less than 2 months). They exercised independent judgement and discretion in decision making and appraised needs of individual children, applying the principles of diversion and minimal intervention.

The length of time it takes to bring a case to a hearing is so long. Two months is a 60-day nightmare for the waiting families. And, additionally, your research shows that nearly 40% of cases fall outside the 2-month period.

We all hope that the Time Intervals Working Group can suggest targets to speed up the process and will note the suggestions from this research.

PRACTICE ISSUES

Research Finding - in 84% of observed hearings, the decision matched the recommendations of the social worker. Decisions were unanimous in 89% of hearings. In almost two-thirds of hearings, the final decision was the only option discussed.

Do we forget to mention appeal rights, review rights? Do we forget to mention reasons in writing? Do we forget the possible availability of legal aid?

These are practice issues which, doubtless, panel chairmen will discuss with Reporters to ensure that we are fulfilling not just statutory obligations, but also adhering to good practice, and identifying any training issues.

It's interesting to note the high percentage of hearings that reach a consensus decision and also the large majority which accord with the social worker's recommendation. It is hoped that the families also were in agreement with the outcomes.

FAMILIES

Research Finding - The participation of children and families at hearings was limited. Although the children were present at 87% of observed hearings, their contributions were very brief. Family members considered that their participation was important but reported feeling nervous. They were only partially aware of their rights (their right to call a review was mentioned at only 72% of observed hearings) and perceived the views of social workers and panel members as more influential than theirs.

We accept that perhaps we are not very good at explaining how the decision evolves as part of a hearing. But do families really think we've made our decisions before the hearing begins? This is a concern. Perhaps good practice should include an explanation that the decision will be made after discussion of the relevant issues.

Another concern is that the families considered some panel members antagonistic or intimidating. I wonder if this was due to the nature of the issues being discussed rather than the attitude or demeanour of the panel members. Sometimes very difficult and painful problems have to be confronted.

Families felt that there was insufficient information about hearings. Why aren't booklets or leaflets being sent out to the families explaining the process?

We need to enable parents - to empower them to take some ownership of the decision and even to take some responsibility. As part of this process of enabling, all the options, procedures and possible outcomes of a hearing should be explained to the family.

Something which could inhibit parents further would be the introduction of legal representation at Children's Hearings. It is important that the discussion is facilitated and not restrained by legal representatives advising their clients not to answer specific questions.

YOUNG PEOPLE OVER THE AGE OF 16

Research Finding - Across Scotland, procurators fiscal retained from 15 to 66% of cases which were jointly referred to Reporters. This reflects variation in views about whether the children's hearings or criminal justice system is best placed to deal with children who offend and young people over 16.

In this audience, there are doubtless many parents. As parents, do we consider our sixteen year old children capable of independent living, of competent long-term decision making? Probably not. Many of us will feel that our children aged nineteen or more still need our care and protection. So why do we adopt a different attitude with some of Scotland's most vulnerable children? I put it to you that anyone under the age of eighteen should be referred to the Children's Hearings system if they experience difficulties in their lives.

WIDESPREAD SUPPORT

Research Finding - Overall, there was widespread support for the Children's Hearings system and the principles on which it was based, despite some evidence of tensions and difficulties in practice.

The research was limited both in terms of number of cases and the geographic area of those cases. We would argue that it should not be set up, therefore, as a benchmark by which to judge us, but perhaps as a note of caution to us in terms of lack of comprehension by parents and the specific practice issues.

The research states that relationships between social workers and panel members are often problematic. This has to be resolved. It is essential that there is good communication and also good relationships between all the agencies involved in the system.

To quote: 'overall there was widespread support for the Children's Hearings system', and one of the reasons for this is that it keeps children out of the criminal justice system.

The hearings system - the welfare principle - is such a valuable standard, but we must ensure that it isn't stifled by lack of appropriate, far thinking support for Scotland's children.