It has been a privilege to act as the independent chair of this Expert Group of dedicated professionals, drawn from across so many different disciplines, all of whom are involved in prevention of, and response to, harmful sexual behaviours (HSB) by children and young people.
Recent decades have seen enormous and continuous cultural and technological changes that affect all children and young people. Often these are linked and, particularly in the last decade, exceptionally fast-paced.
In such an environment it is all the more essential that statutory authorities are aware of, and keep pace with, the changing nature of risk around HSB in order to provide effective support for all parents and carers to keep their children and young people safe; to ensure that the front line professionals who work with them are confident about how best to prevent harm; and to keep reviewing the steps that can be taken to best achieve prevention rather than intervention after the harm has occurred. I hope the report's overview of the current position is of assistance with that onerous task.
HSB by children and young people can have long lasting and devastating consequences for those harmed and their families, as well as for those who cause such harm and their families.
Scotland does not yet have consistency of delivery of preventative messaging, consistency of guidance for all adults involved in the care of children and young people, consistency of training for front line professionals, consistency of treatment or counselling or clarity of where to get help for those who need it and the report discusses how that might be improved.
If prevention is to be improved, it is vital that strategies and responses are evidence based, taking account of the differences in the causes and nature of behaviours by children and young people from that of adults, so that the appropriateness of messaging and impact of interventions designed for these quite distinct demographics are understood and acted upon.
Use of Public Health and Gendered Analysis approaches such as those advocated in Scotland's Equally Safe programme are essential components for a Primary Prevention programme, as is appreciation of the need in some instances for more significant interventions in regard to more serious behaviours that may emerge in some individuals.
The interventions for those children and young people affected - whether harmed or harming - are very often complex and require significant collaborative working between statutory authorities, professional disciplines, the children involved and their families. The methods used by specialists to help those harmed are also often used by them with those who cause the harm; and in many instances those interventions that are accessed as a result of decisions made within the Children's Hearing System are similar to those available to the adult criminal court system.
As discussed at various points throughout the report and particularly in Chapter 6, at present some 16 and 17 year olds cannot be considered for referral to the Children's Reporter where appropriate while some others under 18 can. Those who are not subject to a current compulsory supervision order from the Hearings system can only be proceeded against in the adult criminal justice system.
The adult criminal justice system can lead to delays in making the child causing harm address their behaviour, and the disposals that are sometimes imposed, including incarceration with older offenders, may impact the best chances of rehabilitation and recovery for those displaying HSB under 18 whose behaviours are often rooted as a result of their own experiences of trauma and ill treatment. It may also impact the speed of provision of recovery interventions for the children and young people who have been harmed by the behaviour.
While it is important to emphasise that what the Group was asked to look at was how to better prevent children and young people causing harm by sexual behaviours - and accordingly that is what the report focusses on - that in no way diminishes the requirement that we have as a society to ensure that those harmed by such behaviour have the harm acknowledged and are properly supported through to recovery; nor that risk to public safety is properly addressed.
From the start of our work we were aware of the introduction to the Scottish Parliament of the Age of Criminal Responsibility Bill which proposed amending that age from 8 to 12 years. That was passed on 7 May 2019 and the Government has made a commitment to review that age limit within 3 years of commencement.
It was not within the scope of the Expert Group to consider any further changes to the age of criminal responsibility, however several members of the Expert Group are and have been separately involved in the passing of and implementation of the revised age of criminal responsibility. Victim Support Scotland has confirmed that they would want assurances that significantly more work would be done to ensure the needs of victims, who have been harmed by a young person, are addressed as part of any proposed further changes to the age of criminal responsibility extending above the age of 12.
We were also advised that the Children's Hearing Improvement Partnership (CHIP) had commenced examination of the feasibility of extension of the Hearing System to 16 and 17 year olds who cannot currently be referred to the Reporter. That is ongoing.
Any changes ultimately suggested would of course attract significant caveats which would require to be addressed to ensure that appropriate measures for public safety and support of victims were available. For example bail conditions, victim notification on release and victim impact statements are currently only able to be imposed by the adult court system.
As set out at the end of chapter 6 the majority of the Group welcomed that CHIP examination and the proposition that there should be an extension of the Children's Hearing System to allow all under 18s who are over 16 and not subject to a compulsory supervision order to be considered for referral to the Reporter, rather than automatically processed in the adult criminal justice system. There were however some members of the Group who did not support that.
Rape Crisis Scotland did not feel able to support a change to criteria for possible referral to the Reporter and, as highlighted above, Victim Support Scotland would want assurances that victims of crime receive adequate information regarding their offenders, in relation to 16-17 year olds in the Children's Hearing System, similar to what is available when the perpetrator of the crime is an adult. There is currently little information given out when an offender is part of the Children's Hearing System, rather than the criminal justice system.
A final observation that I take away from the considerable body of information examined by the Group is that despite the majority of adolescents displaying HSB being male, there are few aspects of preventative programmes or social media campaigns designed to engage more effectively with that particular demographic. Positive messages about healthy respectful relationships that need to be delivered to all children and young people are the same messages - but how they are designed and delivered can make a big difference to those preventative messages getting through to the individual child.
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