Whole system approach to young people who offend: evaluation

An evaluation of our Whole System Approach (WSA) to young people who offend in Scotland.

4. The Wider Institutional Context within which WSA operates

In this part of the Report, the wider institutional and structural contexts within which WSA is implemented are discussed. WSA has been successful in promoting partnership working. Yet WSA success does not rest solely upon internal mechanisms, but also in how it interacts with and negotiates wider institutional and structural contexts. In what follows, we elaborate upon the inter- and intra-organisational dynamics of WSA's constituent partners, identifying best practice as described by those closest to its implementation so as to better inform future WSA practice. Consideration is paid to how the practitioner uptake of the WSA ethos is influenced by the role of Police Scotland as gatekeepers to the EEI process; of the ancillary effect of Community Safety initiatives; and the importance that Getting It Right For Every Child ( GIRFEC) plays in affecting cultural change across partner organisations. Discussion in this part of the Report addresses the following objectives: Objective 2 (establishing what is working well and less well towards self-sustainability in the case study areas, and why); Objective 4 (assessing whether there has been a change in how resources are used, and the drivers of change); Objective 5 (demonstrating whether the WSA, in conjunction with other policy streams such as GIRFEC and Curriculum for Excellence, delivers better individual outcomes for young people), and Objective 6 (to establish the lessons learnt for informed sustainability of the WSA).

4.1 Police Discretion/ EEI Gatekeeping

Perhaps the partner required to be most adaptive to the ethos and operation of the WSA has been the police. Police alliance with WSA principles and ways of working is crucial, given their role as the primary referers of cases to EEI. The WSA is dependent on the work of police officers on the ground. In this respect, officers act as important gatekeepers, whose decision-making can play a key role in securing better outcomes for young people.

As noted in section 3, the role of the police (and especially the JLOs) was considered to be critical to the effective working of the WSA. However, two key issues arose in relation to discretionary decision-making by the police: the risk of net-widening, and; the effect of organisational changes following the move to a single national police service which set up tensions between national policing priorities and established local practices.

To take each issue in turn. First, some WSA practitioners expressed concerns around net-widening, that is, drawing a larger number of young people into contact with formal agencies than necessary. In particular, it was suggested that the scope for police discretion in relation to minor or trivial offences had been reduced, and that officers were more likely to charge young people for behaviours that would have been dealt with by a warning. Indeed, some police interviewees saw the implementation of WSA as a reduction in their discretion, drawing in young people who may have been dealt with in other ways:

"In many ways the best thing is you are not stigmatising all the children just because they do something stupid, [of] kids being kids. Then on the other hand you've not always got the flexibility of dealing with something that's high jinks or mischief, because now if a crime is committed a crime is committed… You are not stigmatising them, but you are stigmatising them because it's labelled as a crime, whereas before you would go 'for goodness sake don't do that, what's your mum going to think?' ".

Partnership working is considered to have helped to offset police-driven net-widening. Several WSA practitioners highlighted the importance of the involvement of non-statutory organisations in WSA, both in terms of their ability to engage with young people, their familes and their support networks, but also to counteract potential net-widening. For example, Authority A has strong links with third sector service provider organisations, and they are considered to perform crucial functions in the implementation of the WSA in that authority. In some circumstances, third sector organisations are considered the most appropriate organisation when engaging with young people. As one third sector representative described:

"They [Police Scotland] wanted somebody to just basically stick their head in the door and see if there was anything going on. It's a lot easier for me to get in really than a social worker and so forth". We've had numerous instances of difficult, legendarily difficult to engage families in the area. You won't get anywhere. Mum won't let you in the door, and that's absolutely not been the case [with us]".

Some practitioners attributed the loss of police discretion to organisational change following the move from eight regional forces to a single national police service. The organisational changes have, amongst other things, led to the development of centrally set, national policing priorities which some practitioners considered to be out of alignment with local community priorities. In one authority, a practitioner commented on the fact that decision making was felt to have shifted from the local level to the national level:

"It has been a bit more strained with Police Scotland I have to be honest with you. In [Authority] it was more clearly defined and it was more clear, and there was less red tape involved because the chief constable was close to what's happened… It's such a bigger machine now, so it's a bit more strained, not necessarily on an individual level, but just on a decision making level… decisions aren't made in [Authority] anymore".

Some practitioners also suggested that organisational change following the move to a single police service had resulted in a reduction of police presence in some areas, which in turn contributed to a more responsive, less community focused mode of policing. As illustration, some practioners referred to the use of stop and search, which is more likely to impact on young people (Murray, 2014; Scottish Police Authority, 2015) and was perceived as taking up a disproportionate amount of police time (also see HMICS, 2015). For example, Authority C had the sixth highest rate of stop and search among the 32 local authorities in Scotland (Police Scotland, 2014). Comparatively high levels of stop and search may also be linked to the number of charges for small amounts of cannabis, which was highlighted as a concern in all three authorities.

WSA practitioners in all three authorities raised specific concerns in relation to the interpretation and use of prosecutorial guidance which has affected police and fiscal discretion. It was noted that some offending behaviours could not be considered for EEI, even though young people would be better served by this approach. Two issues were highlighted in this respect, the first in relation to the possession of very small amounts of cannabis, and the second in relation to use of fake ID to gain entry to nightclubs or to buy alcohol. [8] This may also help to explain the perhaps surprisingly low numbers referred to Children's Reporter on offence grounds only.

"A significant number of young people are being referred to YPS for diversion assessment for low level offences; mainly cannabis possession under £10 and using false identification to get into pubs and nightclubs. Until the Lord Advocates Guidelines are amended Police Scotland will not consider these cases at [ PRS]." (Young People's Services)

It was considered that the ability of the WSA partners to respond effectively to particular types of minor offending are constrained by the interpretation of this guidance, especially in the context of limited resources. A social worker in one authority wanted an increased scope for PRS referrals beyond the police current discretionary delimitations:

"My understanding is that you follow it, but you also make different decisions - but the police do not have a view that guidance is 'guidance'. So until the Lord Advocate's guidance is changed, in Authority B, they will not change. My understanding is that originally, the issue regarding the drug offences being included within the Lord Advocates guidance did not actually lie with the Procurator Fiscal service. It more lay with Police Scotland, who are very uncomfortable… So where's there's a trace of £2 worth of cannabis I understand some areas would consider that at PRS, but in Authority B they won't. Straight to the PF. And they're sending them straight here."

4.2 Community Safety Initiatives and Youth Tasking and Coordination

The WSA operates within a broader contextual landscape of organisational structures and processes in both policing and social work, where working practice and arrangements may differ from the WSA ethos. Reference has already been made to points of tension between the WSA ethos and practice and that of more generic social work practice. Across all local authorities the WSA co-exists alongside other, rather different, approaches to youth offending which promote and prioritise enforcement and community safety rather than the welfare of problematic young people. Offence-led strategies were evident in some areas in relation to the Youth Tasking and Coordination ( TAC) meetings, involving WSA partners, Community Safety, Social Work and Police Scotland using their Youth Tracking System. Interventions stemming from TAC typically involve joint home visits by Community Safety and the Police to the young person, in the presence of their parent/guardian, with a view to ensuring that the parent/guardian is aware that their child is involved in antisocial behaviour, and to encourage positive engagement. Other options include Acceptable Behaviour Agreements and Anti-social Behaviour Order disposals, whilst more serious offending can result in the threat of eviction [9] . Offence-led interventions, by their nature, are afforded a shorter time-frame, at times working ahead of and separate to PRS, as observed by a Community Safety practitioner:

"The community safety service has a daily tasking system where we get the police reports from the previous 24 hour period. So, we're even more up to date if you like. On a daily basis we get reports of individuals who there's cause for concern or there's some intelligence in the community to suggest that there are issues in certain areas... the Youth Team can then go and do an early intervention….

We shouldn't have a process that prevents the intervention, waiting two weeks for an ABC or an EEI meeting when we already know that it's happened. That's too long for us. So, yes, we can go along to the EEI and we've heard that so and so has been acting up two weeks ago. The horse has bolted. So, the process should never come in the way of the intervention, and we don't let it."

Some Community Safety practitioners described their role using more enforcement-oriented language, indicating that whilst they are part of the WSA, they are less welfare focused than those dedicated WSA practitioners at its core. For example:

"In terms of EEI, the whole idea is to try and keep young people, not out of the legal system, but certainly out of the court system as much as possible… [Community safety] action has a slightly more punitive ring to it".

"Don't get us wrong where the stick is required we go in and we use the stick".

The WSA is not the only approach to low level offending, and the observations in this section highlight the difficult balance for practitioners between responding to young people's needs, as per the WSA, and reacting to offending behaviour. The observations also raise questions as to how the gravity, or impact of some offences may be best communicated to young people. One WSA lead commented:

"The WSA processes work when it's the more low level, first time offenders, who are on the fringes of criminality… Our team will have minimal contact with them… because the point of the system is not to suck people in and to create work, and to make them go to groups or make them do work that they don't need to do otherwise. So, I think it's very effective but its minimal intervention."

In many respects, EEI is characterised by a 'light touch' when it comes to statutory measures; but this does not denote a hands-off approach when it comes to providing a young person with support. As a social worker in one authority describes:

"We're trying to divert them away from statutory measures and allowing them the opportunity to work with us on a voluntary basis to address their offending behaviour. That doesn't always sit in isolation, because you sometimes have issues with education or issues at home, it could be parental substance misuse, it can be a whole range of other issues that we might need to look at as well."

Nor does the 'light touch' approach equate to a 'soft' approach. EEI's underlying welfarist principles may not necessarily be fully understood by the young people directly benefitting from the approach. As such, practitioners were keen to stress that EEI is not a form of appeasement, rather it requires a 'hint of threat' so as to communicate the potential gravity for a young person if they continue to behave in the fashion that has brought them to attention. The continued gate-keeping of EEI by Police Scotland, in conjunction with Community Safety's presence in offending hotspots, is seen as important for sustaining the requisite 'hint of threat' in the process.

4.3 Getting it right for every child ( GIRFEC)

GIRFEC is another such concurrent approach, though one with much more obvious links and similarities in ethos to the WSA. Those links need to be made even more explicit, for the reputation of GIRFEC is considered to be a powerful tool, which could appeal to more hesitant WSA partners:

"I think to begin with people saw it [ WSA] as an extra task or extra paperwork to be doing. I think what the workers [communicated] was 'you don't have to change existing processes that you're using; you just try and incorporate GIRFEC into your way of working." (Social Work Manager)

Indeed, the diversification of monitoring practices for young people not under supervision, beyond the police and Community Safety, may be better achieved through GIRFEC and the mandatory role of the 'Named Person'. For those young people that have not come to the attention of social work or the police, whether by accident or design, schools provide the most comprehensive opportunity for information gathering on this group. Increased capacities and responsibilities of schools, which will be formalized with the introduction in August 2016 of the Named Person (nominally a school head, deputy or senior teacher trained in guidance) consistent with the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, are intended to improve monitoring processes within WSA and ensure cases do not fall "off the radar". As one practitioner commented:

"Previous to EEI the attitude from schools was that was outwith school gates, it's nothing to do with us, that's a community issue, that's a social work issue. And while Whole System kind of laps that up, the new guidance from the Children and Young Persons Act is going to say 'No, its absolutely to do with Named Person'. They will know intricate details of what goes on in school, what goes on in the family, and they may in fact be the best people and best placed to address what's going on."

Monitoring of young people not under supervision requires a different approach to policing. The mandatory roll out of the Named Person in schools offset some practitioner concerns about net-widening by means of a 'network widening' which provides further options and approaches to secure better outcomes for young people.

4.4 Local Contexts and Variation in Response

In terms of ongoing policy and practice, the ability to retain flexibility is important. As shown in section one of this Report, the baseline conditions in local authorities are different, and it makes sense for WSA leads to adapt their policies as appropriate. For example, the rural character of Authority A may be said to have contributed to its success, reduced numbers, and reduced complexity. As one practitioner commented:

"There's different tones for everything in [Authority]. There are different communities, so some of the cases you might find concerning, Glasgow would be laughing at it, saying not a concern. We just need to live with that, that's the way it works, not just here but elsewhere".

A WSA practitioner in Authority C also commented on the specific nature of youth offending in that authority, and of the concentrated presence of problematic peer groups accounting for the majority of high risk offending behaviours amongst that demographic. Such a context makes practitioner engagement skills all the more important as positive relationships are important for creating trust:

"The links are quite problematic in Authority C; all the kids in care know each other. There's transport links, there's communication; that wasn't my experience in a previous authority. So all the kids knew each other: generally this was only a bad thing because if one of them had something bad happening, if it was exploitation, then they're all getting exposed to it. If there was a change in drugs misuse then they were all getting exposed to it…

But with that, it created an opportunity for engagement because young people were giving other young people permission… The longer we were doing it the easier it became because they'd seen us when they were with their friends or they'd seen us when we were in court for somebody, they'd seen us in these different environments."

A Community Safety representative in one authority described the kinds of initiatives that have helped to reduce antisocial behaviour, whilst demonstrating the value in diversifying partnerships in order to draw on partners who can better engage with often intransigent young people:

"Some of the kids are given the opportunity to come and volunteer with [The Local Football Team] to train up to be coaches. So, a lot of these coaches who are out on the streets are coaches that know, I know your big brother, I know your big sister, you know, they're in the community, they are local, they have that knowledge. Some of these individuals will then go on to get employment, so there's a real kind of, the hook of football, the hook of sport, is quite effective."

In one authority, the WSA lead had visited other parts of Scotland to see how the process worked in other authorities, to " find out what people are doing [and] learn from people". The lead then developed best practice for the area, making adaptions as appropriate. Taking a hands-on approach, each step was tested (for example, undertaking a diversion assessment), and tweaked as appropriate, prior to roll-out. This flexible approach enabled policy to be developed from a wide knowledge base and tailored to local conditions.

Whilst the need for local variations is clear, there are however, some areas which may benefit from greater consistency, including eligibility criteria for the WSA (for example, whether young people on supervision may be referred). This may be a matter of clarifying existing rules, or providing further guidance.

4.5 Achieving Better Welfare Outcomes for Young People

Practitioners in different work streams highlighted a number of improved welfare outcomes for young people as a result of the WSA. These include an ability to identify and respond to wider welfare concerns outwith the police charge. For example, a police officer in one authority commented:

"Last week I brought a boy to the table, first offence. So on paper, from frontline, got a warning and the warning was suitable. However, I've done further checks and then I'm finding that he's been picked up on anti-social behaviour over recent times and then there was a 'missing person' in the space of about a month. So to me there's something triggering this change in this boy's behaviour. So we go to a meeting for him. I only had one offence for him so on the police system its minimum information, not a huge concern but education then speak after me and they give their input, this boy's attending school 50% of the time. So the crime he'd committed was the theft of a bottle of coke. Crime wise not the greatest concern. His concern was non-school attendance, where's he hanging about, do the parents need support, and what do we need to do to get that support in"?

Similarly, a JLO commented:

"At the moment, it's offence driven. So we bring the names to the table, okay. But when we sit around the table, sometimes the offence is not what's causing us an issue".

Below, a police officer comments on how the WSA has improved partnership working and information sharing at a policing stage, before cases even arrive at EEI:

"At the moment we've got a child who's 18. So, she's not a young person by definition of youth offending. She's got her own flat. There are children migrating to her flat. So we now all share the information. There's concern there may be an element of sexual exploitation going on there. So now this allows us to get housing in. So even at the moment we don't know an offence has taken place, so normally the police wouldn't even be involved at the stage".

A social worker commented on how she had assisted in particularly complex cases, and how, through court support, a young sex offender with learning disabilities had required a level of sensitivity not forthcoming from other criminal justice partners. When asked what would happen without her input, she replied:

"He wouldn't have someone to speak up for him. You know, somebody to help the Sheriff recognise his needs, his vulnerability. To be brandished a sex offender at such an early age: he's only 16. He's had to leave school. He can't get into college. We're all working to make sure he can get back into something. Because it's not right that he's just dismissed: you're a sex offender, you get away over there".

The same worker also commented on how diversion from prosecution had benefitted a vulnerable young person with suicidal tendencies. When asked how this individual would have handled a non-diversionary disposal, she responded:

"He'd end up in prison. What would benefit from that? And that's getting back to the young people that I have in diversion, what would they benefit from a fine or a breach of peace being charged and getting put on some sort of order? It's not addressing the offence."

In another authority, a social worker highlighted how intensive support can benefit vulnerable young people who are in secure accommodation:

"We picked her up a year and a half ago where she still had a lot of offending to come up, a lot of offences coming up. And started working with her, she went into secure again pretty fast. But one of the things Whole Systems does is if somebody goes into a secure [unit] we don't just wait until they come out. We then see them every week basically, keeping the relationship, planning for when they come out, when they're released… Her life has completely changed… And it's only because her criminal justice social worker could honestly say that she's bought into it. She's bought into social work. She's just grown up; she doesn't want to do it anymore. She just wants to be left in peace. So she's a real success story."

Another social worker commented on how diversionary programs had evolved since the WSA rollout, and how increasing flexibility allowed workers to better respond to offences:

"We're tailoring it now to suit the offence a bit more, which is better. And that's just been experience as we've gone along, we've started to think maybe some kids are tuning out a bit when you're talking about something that doesn't apply to them and you can see they're sitting going 'I never did that, so what are you talking to me about this' and young people have said that to us".

Using a case of three young people causing criminal damage as illustration, a social worker in one authority discusses the need to be aware of welfare concerns in more serious cases where, on the face of it, a more punitive approach may be sought:

"I'm just thinking of a situation we had with three young people over Christmas who went on a window smashing spree and caused £23,000 worth of damage. The police were jumping up and down saying; 'Well you're not doing your job here, what's going to happen to them?'… I think there were some people who actually thought we need to take them away and put them in secure. [But] can we put a bit of perspective around what's happening here? You know, these young people are very needy young people. One of my workers has got two of these young people and has worked himself to the bone trying to stop these young people from getting into even more serious bother in the community… and that work just isn't recognised by other people. They have to be held accountable for that, and yes, there have to be consequences for this, but we have to be realistic about what we can do as well."

On the whole, practitioners were very positive that young people were likely to have better welfare outcomes through WSA; however, this was sometimes hard to achieve in practice due to competing imperatives, especially for offenders on the cusp of adulthood. There was some tension between the police and social workers in particular who, while they had the best interests of the young person at heart, had differing views about how to achieve it.

4.6 Summary

This short section has discussed the importance of the wider context within which the WSA operates in Scotland, and the role played by the WSA's constituent partners. It is clear that the police, as gatekeepers to the system, are key in relation to the operation of the WSA in each local authority and it is crucial that the police are able to maintain the WSA principles and ethos in their decision-making.

The WSA is informed by GIRFEC principles, and the links with GIRFEC have been important for both the credibility and sustainability of the WSA approach in the broader youth justice landscape. However, it is important to note that the WSA is not the only approach to low level offending in Scotland, and the observations in this section highlight the difficult balance for practitioners between responding to young people's needs, as per the WSA, and those which adopt an enforcement perspective in reacting to offending behaviour.


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