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

SECOND RESPONSE TO DECIDING IN CHILDREN'S INTERESTS

PROFESSOR HARRIET DEMPSTER, DIRECTOR OF SOCIAL WORK, HIGHLAND COUNCIL, AND CHAIR OF ASSOCIATION OF DIRECTORS OF SCOIAL WORK (ADSW) CHILDREN & FAMILIES COMMITTEE

Thank you for inviting me to respond to Professor Hallet's paper . Deciding in Children's Interests is an important piece of research and with the cohort study undertaken by Professor Waterhouse and her team, represents the most significant programme of research into the Children's Hearings system.

We need to now build on the research findings and apply them. It is important for the Children's Hearings system to answer the question where do we go from here.

I speak to you today as a social work manager; in the 10 minutes I have I don't have time to do full justice to the research findings; I am only able to raise a few points which I hope will stimulate thought, discussion and, dare I hope, action.

In speaking with you today I note that one of the key findings of the research was the widespread support of the system and the principles underpinning it, but there are some tensions and it's those I think we have to address.

Panel members and professionals reported to the researchers that the greatest weakness in the system is a lack of resources; while not wishing to dismiss this finding I recognise that to spend 10 minutes arguing for more resources may not take us very far. Instead, and some of you may say I have taken the easy option, I intend to focus on issues where I believe we can make a difference without a huge investment in extra resources. I support the sentiment expressed by the previous speaker, Mrs Penny Simpson: 'We need to be far more innovative with the funding available'. It's my view that we will only succeed in this if we break down the professional barriers and work together for Scotland's children. In this connection it is vital that we remind ourselves what the legislation says; i.e. that it is the duty of the local authority to give effect to supervision requirements. For too long this has been interpreted as the social work department and I believe this is one of the reasons the system has been found to be less effective with school-related problems, including truancy and exclusion, and indeed in dealing with offenders.

The system has proved both an effective and sensitive means of dealing with care and protection cases. In child protection there is an established tradition of close interagency collaboration - it's my view that this needs to be further developed in other areas of work.

Working together and early intervention are both key themes. With recent government initiatives we have a marvellous opportunity to channel our efforts to address problems at an early stage using both community-based and targeted approaches: to make new community schools truly inclusive; to initiate creative alternatives to exclusion; and to address truancy in innovative and practical ways. We also have an opportunity to enhance support to families with young children and the availability and quality of day care. In a recent research review conducted by Stuart Asquith the key role of these services and early intervention in preventing delinquency was highlighted.

I think all the children's panel interests can help shape this agenda and local services by playing their part in the children's services planning process.

I also recognise that some of us in social work will need to change our attitudes to education; we have not always given sufficient emphasis to this aspect of children's lives and the benefits that education can bring to young people - it's such an important factor in determining positive outcomes.

TURNING TO OFFENDERS

The Stirling research in tracing the process of cases highlighted 2 significant factors:

  • that there were significant delays in reaching decisions about referrals to the Reporter
  • that a high proportion of cases were diverted from the system.

The researchers have suggested different ways delays might be reduced.

These issues were considered in the Just in Time report produced under the skilful chairmanship of Sally Kuenssberg. In that group we considered the research findings - the 'what works' agenda - i.e. that speedier justice can lead to better outcomes for children. We examined practice across the land and it became clear that the use of early police warnings in some parts of the country meant that some cases were dealt with speedily and efficiently without clogging up the system, thus leaving more resources to be targeted effectively to higher need cases. I welcome the fact that the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration (SCRA) and the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland (ACPOS) are working together to explore an expanded role for the police officer warning.

I think this is a positive example which illustrates that it is not always about working harder but working smarter and adopting a more discerning and targeted approach.

This is especially relevant when we come to consider young people who persistently offend. I don't disagree that we need to retain the duality of needs and deeds, but this should not be translated into an approach which ignores addressing the deeds - we can learn much from colleagues in the criminal justice services. This doesn't have to mean young people being referred to the courts but it is about applying effective programmes to address offending in a different context. There are now a few very positive examples of these programmes in the community such as Freagarrach and, in Dundee, the Choice project.

The costs of residential schools and secure care is such that we need only to prevent one or 2 admissions to fund a project.

The second point I would like to make relates to attendance at hearings. In this respect I noted that fathers did not attend as frequently as mothers. The reasons for this could relate to mothers often being the primary carer or indeed the picture could be a reflection of the fact that an increasing number of children are born into one-parent families or indeed following separation or divorce grow up with only one natural parent. The nature of the family has changed in the past 25 years and children are at much higher risk of experiencing the loss of or separation from a parent and significant adult; in some circumstances this will have a detrimental effect on outcomes for a child. Part One of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 sets out the continuing responsibilities of the parent and the importance of ongoing contact. I think we need a big public-awareness campaign about these provisions; I believe we have a positive opportunity with the Children Act to try and improve the levels of attendance of fathers at hearings and their involvement in securing the welfare of their children.

I would like now to move to consider the issue of rights and participation. These issues are much higher profile today than when the hearings system was established. The research found low levels of participation. There could be links here with the families understanding of the system. There is low public awareness of the system and that needs to be addressed. A few years ago I was approached by a TV film-maker who wanted to make a film tracing a child's experience through the system. Such films are always a risk and, yes, there are always issues of confidentiality and informed choice that can't be ignored; but I also think there are risks attached to being too careful and protective. We continue to have a public which largely doesn't understand the system and therefore don't play their full part in supporting the system. That television programme didn't get made but I hope there might be others in the future perhaps even about the day in the life of a panel member.

The purpose of the research programme was an evaluation of the Children's Hearings system; as I said at the outset it represents one of the most significant pieces of research since the inception of the system. It may be some time before another research programme is specifically directed at the system, yet there is a need to continue to evaluate. I think there is a link here with promoting more participation from children and families. I would like to suggest that hearings interests work together to seek regular feedback from families on the operation of the system. This could be done in a variety of ways: focus groups; questionnaires short interviews; suggestion cards. They could help inform the practice and the training agenda. Results could be contained in the panel newsletter or the review of the children's services plan. What's important for the future of the system is, yes, we celebrate its successes but we must also guard against complacency and strive for a continuous improvement culture in what is a fast-changing world.