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



It is now 28 years since the Children's Hearings system was established under the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968. This study provides some information on the circumstances and outcomes for a cohort of children involved in the hearings system.

The Edinburgh study commenced in February 1995 and was completed during a period of considerable change to the Reporters service.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank again all Reporters for taking part in the study.

Reporters and panel members come face to face with families involved in the Children's Hearings system every day. They know a good deal about the children and families from this first-hand experience. Yet it is important to turn impressions into facts and to make known to a wider community what Reporters and panel members may know from their experience.


The central aims of this study were fourfold:

  • to provide a description of the children and young people using statistical and professional information
  • to outline changes in their circumstances over time
  • to discuss outcomes in relation to compulsory measures of supervision for the children
  • to report the views of some parents and young people about their experiences of the system.

The interface between the Children's Hearings and the criminal justice system was also considered.

There were 3 main sources of information:

  • postal questionnaires completed by Reporters at February 1995, 1996 and 1997;
  • government statistics (SWS21 data) routinely gathered on all children in the hearings system
  • interviews with a small number of parents and young people aged 16 years and over, exploring their views of the hearings system.

Children were selected for the study where the Reporter had some involvement in the first 2 weeks of February 1995. Government statistical information on the children allowed us to trace the entirety of their involvement in the hearings system from their first ever referral to 2 years after the census date.

The amount of information available on the children diminished over time; Reporters tended to know more about those children under supervision.


  • the final sample consisted of 1,155 children
  • two-thirds were male (66.5%) and one-third female (33.5%)
  • the majority of children were aged between 12-15 years.

The sample was broadly representative of all referrals to Reporters throughout Scotland for the year 1995.


I want to tell you now about the circumstances of the children at February 1995 about which very little was previously known.

Living circumstances

Just under three-quarters (849, n=1148) of the cohort children were described as living with one or both parents.

Family structure

Just under a half (46%) of the cohort children's families were reported as consisting of lone- parent households mostly headed by lone mothers. This proportion was higher than in the general population ( Social Trends 26, p.49).


Local authority housing was the most common form of accommodation for the children's families. Only 5% of the children's families lived in owner-occupier property. This latter figure was extremely low compared with households in Scotland in 1991.

Family income

Reporters gave state benefit as the main source of income for over half the families of cohort children. This suggests a background of considerable economic disadvantage for the children.

Reporters - adversities and positives

Reporters were asked what difficulties the children were facing in their lives that required involvement with the Children's Hearings system?

Three main categories of concerns recorded by Reporters included:

  • parents with difficulties - including alcohol misuse
  • child-care concerns - including difficulties in the parent-child relationship
  • children in difficulty - including behavioural and emotional problems.

On the positive side, Reporters identified just over two-thirds of cohort children at February 1995 had the support of a least one parent or other family member.

Educational experience at February 1995

The vast majority (93%) of cohort children at 1 February 1995 were recorded as enrolled in school (874, n=939) - mainly in local authority schooling.

There were children with educational difficulties including 69 children excluded from school; and a small proportion in special educational provision.

Public-care experiences of cohort children

Reporters observed just over one-third of the children had at least one experience of being in care living away from home.


I'd like now to tell you something about the pattern of the children's involvement in the hearings system before and 2 years after the beginning of the study in February 1995.

It was most striking to discover that many of the cohort children had an extensive prior history of involvement in the Children's Hearings system before this study began.

Information on this prior involvement was available for 822 out of the 1155 cohort children.

It is clear for some children involvement in the Children's Hearings system was a recurrent process and not a one-off encounter.

Prior involvement

  • cohort children with a prior history in the Children's Hearings system before 1 February 1995 (n=822) were attracting on average about 8 referrals per child
  • nearly four-fifths of these children were referred to Reporters on numbers of occasions
  • as numbers of referrals increased time intervals between referrals were found to decrease significantly over time.

Age, sex and grounds

There was a strong statistical association between age, gender and grounds of referral. Younger girls were more likely than younger boys to be referred on ground C - lack of parental care. Older boys were more likely to be referred for offences.

Children under 12 years of age at their first referral to the Reporter were much more likely to have at least one referral under grounds C and D (p<.01) i.e. lack of parental care and where certain offences against children have been committed.

It also seems very likely some children referred for offences are very likely to have come to the attention of the Reporter initially on other grounds.

Children referred for offences were significantly more likely (p<01) to have come first to the attention of Reporters between age 5 and 11 years.

Age at referral

Another key finding concerned the age at first referral to the Reporter. Referral to the Reporter at a young age was an early warning signal of the likelihood of more intensive involvement of the child in the Children's Hearings system. The evidence for this came from several sources.

Cohort children referred to a hearing entered the system for the first time at a very young age (7.5 years) compared to the average of first referral at 8.7 years.

They also were likely to have a higher than average number of referrals (average of 10 referrals) when compared to all cohort children with a history in the system (average of 8 referrals per child).

Finally, cohort children never subject to a supervision requirement despite prior involvement with the Children's Hearings system before February 1995 attracted fewer referrals and were referred at an older age.


Moving to look briefly at outcomes for the children one and two years on we can see that cohort children not under supervision during 1995 appeared overall to have less exposure to the Children's Hearings system.

By comparison cohort children under supervision in this period were referred at a younger age, having a higher number and range of referrals more often leading to referral to a hearing.

By 1 February 1996 cohort children remaining in the system appeared to represent a group of children where the social adversities in their lives were more marked.

Cohort children: 2 years on

Two years on the legal position of children at 1 February 1997 had changed considerably.

About one-third (31%, n=1,141) of the children were subject to a supervision requirement at February 1997.

These were mainly children between 12 and 15 years with males predominating.

Parents' and children's attitudes towards Children's Hearings and referral

I just want to say a few words about parents and children's views of the system.

Parents and children were extremely reluctant to give their consent to be interviewed for the purpose of this study and only a tiny minority of parents and young people agreed to see us. For this reason their observations may not be representative.

Cohort parents and children found much in the system to their liking:

  • parents perceived the system as fair and felt their views were listened to by the Reporter and at the hearing
  • by and large the informality of the system and ease of communication were spoken of positively.

One of the clearest findings to emerge from the interviews was a widespread difficulty in understanding the boundaries between the Children's Hearings system and social work department.

They questioned whether panel members were truly independent decision makers.

There was a divergence of opinion on the effectiveness of the panel. Older children in trouble were not always perceived to take the system sufficiently seriously, but other parents of younger children felt referral may have served to curb tendencies in the child to misbehave or offend.

Eight respondents mentioned, however, that hearings invariably promised more in terms of support facilities than they were able to deliver in post-hearings support.


In the five minutes remaining I will look briefly at 2 sets of children in the study - 113 children and young people jointly reported to the Reporter and to the procurator fiscal in February 1995 and 465 cohort children referred for an offence reason in the same period.

Of the 113 children and young people who were jointly reported in February 1995, just over half were dealt with by Reporters in the Children's Hearings system and just under half by procurators fiscal. Most had an extensive history in the Children's Hearings system with four-fifths subject to supervision prior to February 1995.

By February 1997, over 1,800 offence courts had been recorded against them in criminal records and nearly four-fifths had a recorded criminal conviction; two-thirds had been fined and just over half had been made subject to a community disposal involving social work supervision through the court.

Thirty-one people (just under a third of those dealt with by the hearings system and just over a third of those dealt with by the procurator fiscal in February 1995) had experience of custody before they were 18 years. Most custodies were imposed by sheriff summary courts.

Between half and three-quarters of offences resulting in first custody were dealt with in court around the time or within 6 months of termination of supervision in the Children's Hearings. The average age of supervision termination was 16 years 10 months. The most common recorded reason for termination was non-co-operation rather than that they were no longer in need of compulsory measures.

Over two-thirds of the 48 procurators fiscal surveyed indicated that they were unaware of the social circumstances and difficulties in the lives of the young people when dealing with their offences; that their main source of information on social characteristics was likely to be the police and their main concern in decision making was the seriousness of the offence.

Four respondents (2 procurators fiscal and 2 Reporters) were asked to comment on the findings. All 4 expressed the view that the findings seemed consistent with their experience. They suggested that existing protocols and policy, limited information, and the nature of the services available to the hearings system may result in more young people being dealt with in the adult criminal system than need be.


Moving to the 465 cohort children referred for offence reasons in February 1995, over four-fifths were boys and two-thirds were aged 14 or 15, few were 16 or over which is likely to be an indication of the sharp cut off within the system at age 16.

The philosophy behind the hearings system is predicated on the assumption that any differences between children referred for offences and children referred for other reasons are likely to be outweighed by their similarities. This is the rationale for an integrated approach.

The study found that the social circumstances of the 465 children referred for offence reasons were broadly similar if slightly more favourable than those of the whole cohort, while jointly reported children and young people's circumstances often seemed worse.

The slide provides a summary of some telling variables. For example two-fifths of children referred for offences were from lone parent families, slightly less than the whole cohort, compared to almost half of the jointly reported. Nearly half of children referred for offences were from households dependent on state benefit, slightly less than the whole cohort, and compared to two-thirds of the jointly reported; about a third had been looked after away from home at some time.

In addition to concerns about offending, truancy and behaviour, for nearly half of children referred for offences, Reporters placed the greatest emphasis on their need for adequate care and support.

Regrettably Reporters were often unable to report on the pattern of school attendance. Almost half of the children were reported having difficulty in school particularly with teachers; almost two-thirds were viewed as unenthusiastic about their schooling, often seen as disruptive, and for three-quarters, parental attitude to school was described as unsatisfactory. Over a third had peer-related difficulties.

Most of the offences reported were of a non-violent nature with over 50% property related. Almost three-quarters of the children had been referred for offending prior to February 1995 and over two-fifths had been on supervision. They had averaged 10 previous referrals, many for non-offence reasons including just under a third for parental-control reasons and a fifth for risks associated with offences against children. The average age of first referral was 10.2 years.

Six hundred and seven cohort children reached the age of 16 by 1 February 1997. We were able to identify 256 for the purpose of tracking Scottish Criminal records. One hundred and thirty of the 256 children, mainly boys, had been convicted by an adult criminal court by 1 February 1997, mainly before a summary court. A third had received a community disposal, nearly half had been fined and under a third had at least one period of detention before they were 18 years of age. The average age of last recorded supervision termination was age 16 years 6 months.

The study suggests that children reported for offending are often identified early for reasons in addition of their offending, and they experience a range of social adversity including family and schooling difficulties. The category 'jointly reported young people' may provide a means of identifying young people who are amongst the most in need of compulsory measures and in need of specialist assistance to address their offending behaviour, and may well be a good predictor of high risk of future custody.


Overall these findings suggest the children in the main came from disadvantaged backgrounds, with some evidence of disruption in their family circumstances. They also faced a range of adversities in their lives although many had the support of a parent or other relative.

Early intervention

Early age at first referral to the Reporter together with numbers of referrals appears predictive of more intensive involvement with the Children's Hearings system. This may support the need for focused early intervention.

Resources - supervision

The main resource for helping children in need of compulsory measures of care is the supervision requirement.

Very little is empirically known about the process and outcomes involved in compulsory supervision. Research is urgently required.

Considering the range of adversities the cohort children under supervision were facing, a multi-disciplinary approach may need to be developed further.

The link between the Children's Hearings system and the social work department is critical.

Further attention needs to be given to the contribution of early non-compulsory intervention in the lives of the children.