FIRST RESPONSE TO CHILDREN IN FOCUS: THE COHORT STUDY
MR ALAN D MILLER, PRINCIPAL REPORTER IN THE SCOTTISH CHILDREN'S REPORTER ADMINISTRATION - RESPONSE TO PRESENTATION BY EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY RESEARCH TEAM
I am very pleased to be able to offer this brief response to the Edinburgh University longitudinal study, Children in Focus. Indeed, I am pleased to see both this and the Stirling University studies coming to fruition. It is my view that, for most of the last 28 years, the Children's Hearings system has been seriously under-researched. Certainly we in Scottish Children's Reporter Administration welcome and are committed to the principle and practice of research in the hearings system.
I want to touch on some technical issues about the presentation and interpretation of the findings, and then look at 3 issues the research raises for me:
- to what extent do the research findings validate the philosophy of the hearings system?
- what questions do the findings raise about how well the hearings system works for children?
- what do we take forward in response to this research?
Time permits me to mention only briefly three technical issues about presentation of the research findings:
- a number of concerns have been raised about 'repeater children', i.e. those children who are referred frequently. We need to remember, however, that these children are likely to be over-represented in the cohort used for this study. In the course of a typical year, the majority of children referred to the Reporter are only in fact referred once or twice. Inevitably, that 'silent majority' (as it were) is likely to be under-represented in a sample based on all children who came to the Reporter's notice during a specific 2-week period. Equally, the small minority of children who are re-referred on multiple occasions were much more likely to be included in a cohort established on this basis. We need to remember the missing majority when we try to interpret the results
- depending on how you read the results, there is scope for confusion between referrals and reviews. When a child is referred to the Reporter under Section 52, the Reporter has a choice about whether or not to arrange a hearing. But when a child is subject to a supervision requirement, if a valid request to review the requirement is presented to the Reporter, the Reporter must arrange a hearing. Some of the statistics that appear to suggest unusually high rates of referral to hearings may, in fact, be skewed because reviews have been counted as if they were referrals
- finally, a very technical point. I am particularly glad that the Edinburgh University team were able to extend their study to look at children who are jointly reported to the Fiscal and the Reporter. We should, however, note in passing that not all of the children studied in that group in fact came from the main cohort. The cohort was supplemented to provide sufficient numbers to justify the study, and this necessarily implies a degree of pre-selection of children who, by dint of having reached a particular stage in the system, would be likely to be particularly needy.
PHILOSOPHY OF THE HEARINGS SYSTEM
One of the most important features of this research is that it addresses issues that go to the heart of the philosophy of the hearings system. And it appears to validate that philosophy in a number of respects:
- broad similarities have been identified in the adversities faced both by children who offend and children referred on other grounds. This appears entirely consonant with the Kilbrandon view that there was a broad similarity of underlying factors. The research also appears to tell us very clearly that early identification of risk is possible. Children placed on supervision earlier tended to have a more troublesome history than those not placed on supervision
- again, there is clear evidence in the study that the existence of multiple difficulties in a child's life is a key warning sign. This will not be news to anyone with experience of Children's Hearings but academic validation is welcome
- people respect a system that respects them. The small number of children and parents interviewed for the study largely reported that they saw the system as a fair one in which their views were genuinely listened to.
Before we proceed too far with self-congratulation, we should identify the questions or challenges posed to us as practitioners by the research:
- is early identification of risk really constructive? It would be possible to argue that the process is self-fulfilling - that children go on to be referred many times because they have been brought early into the system. I don't think any of us would now give credence to such a simplistic reversal of the obvious sequence of cause and effect. We do, however, have to ask ourselves whether we are really picking up and working with the future or long-term risks to children? Conversely, are we so intent on finding out who caused the bruising that we forget to address the underlying emotional damage?
- the next question the research raises for me is whether decision makers in the hearings system have the appropriate information available to them. Reporters and Children's Hearings do dip in and out of children's lives, often with little continuing information. That is fine as long as good quality information can be made available (and timeously) when it is needed. This does raise a concern for me about the availability of medical information relating to parents in particular. Concerns about parental health issues were prevalent in a surprisingly high proportion of the cohort cases, yet it is very difficult for Reporters to get good quality information without jumping through all sorts of hoops. This may be an issue that needs to be re-addressed sooner rather than later
- If we accept, however, that by-and-large appropriate decisions are being made about when to intervene, and that these are based on appropriate information, then the next question must be: what happens in intervention? Whether services are offered on a voluntary or compulsory basis, what actually goes on, and how effective is it? This seems to me to be the priority issue to which further research must now be addressed. Perhaps we need to look at a cohort of children who are referred in their early years, track which ones return to the system and which do not, and then try to identify what makes the difference
- a final area of considerable concern is the 'transitional area' - the 16 to 18 year olds. We should note that 607 of the cohort children were known to have reached 16 during the life time of the study. Adult system records could be traced for only 256, and in fact only 130 had a conviction in the adult criminal courts by the end of the study. While the figures are not alarmist, however, they are too high - particularly when we recognise how needy and vulnerable many of these young people were. Work with this age group continues to be misdirected by many erroneous myths, as I will discuss further in a few moments.
ISSUES FOR FURTHER WORK
What, then, are the key issues we need to take away and work on from this research? I wish to suggest 3:
- as I have already said, after the decision making and longitudinal studies, the next key area to address must be the content and effectiveness of services across the range of children's needs. We now have a lot of information about children's movement through the system. I imagine the Edinburgh University team have barely scratched the surface of the enormous bank of statistical and qualitative information collected on the cohort group. It must be possible to build on this in the next phase of research
- the research must also impact on the strategic framework for children's services, both at national and at local authority level. I have had the privilege today of presenting my views on the research findings. The views of others may differ. What is important is that we argue our differences through, going back to the data wherever necessary, and that we then explicitly reflect research evidence into strategic decisions about the allocation and use of resources. Today has been useful as a starting point, but more work is clearly needed
- The cohort study undoubtedly highlights the 'transitional group' as a major cause of concern. We must start by clearing our minds and our practice of a number of myths about these young people. Here are some statements we have all read in background reports, or heard spoken around the hearing table:
'He is now mature enough to take the consequences of his own actions' - very few 16 year olds can truly be described as 'mature', and certainly not those who offend regularly and whose lives are deeply unstable. We have to remember that 16 is an extremely young age for entry into the adult criminal justice system
'Because you won't co-operate, there is nothing we can do' - how can we forget so quickly that a supervision requirement is a compulsory legal instrument? One of the more disturbing findings from the decision-making study was that we seem to fail repeatedly to grasp the proper relationship between co-operation and compulsion. A compulsory requirement can only be needed if co-operation is explicitly denied or cannot be relied upon. Sixteen and 17 year olds do often present as very rejecting of adults - that is one clear sign of their immaturity - but we have to start working through that instead of colluding with it
'Nothing works with young offenders'- this is the most pernicious and disabling myth of all. It is also wholly unfounded. Research studies from around the world now back up the findings from good projects in Scotland that services which are timely, well-focussed and high quality can and do make a massive difference to troubled and troublesome young people.
Research serves its purpose if it enables us to understand the world in a new and clearer way, and to act accordingly. The onus is now on all of us, policy makers and practitioners, to act.