Roger Kent, director of social work in the former Lothian Region, gave delegates brought together by the charity Children 1st and Glasgow University a first insight into his keenly awaited report on protecting the interests of children living away from home.
Mr Kent, whose report has been presented to Scottish Office ministers and is expected to be published in the middle of next month, said that more than 10,000 children lived away from home, about half of them in independent or special boarding schools, a quarter in foster homes and the rest in residential care, including secure units.
Calling for boarders at independent schools to be treated with the same concern as others, Mr Kent said that some children from abroad had only the flimsiest guardianship arrangements.
Mr Kent urged much closer working between local authority inspectors and HMIs, and he questioned the logic of inspecting some boarding schools at five-year intervals, while others, along with residential childcare units, were inspected 10 times as often. "The whole ethos of a school can change in 10 years, " he said.
But there was also a danger that an obsession with safeguards might lead to sterile environments for children. "Agencies and their staff have become more careful about the ways they use touch. Children and young people can feel safer because their need for some distance is recognised, but there is a danger that this can create a sterile care climate," Mr Kent says.
Some schools were denying children physical and emotional support through fear of misunderstandings or false allegations.
If all physical contact was taboo, Mr Kent said, how would abused young people learn the difference between when it was good to touch another person and when it was bad? Advocating safe caring practices, he said: "There must be a place for spontaneous expressions of joy and delight."
In residential care, education was still not taken seriously enough, Mr Kent said. Exclusion was too easy an option for schools and residential social workers did not fight hard enough when arguing children's cases. Excluded children who ran away also put themselves into danger: "Their feelings about themselves and their lives may lurch farther downhill."
The conference, which included a presentation on the extensive powers of children's ombudsmen in Norway, was organised to consider how the findings of the Childhood Matters report might be implemented in Scotland. The report, from the National Commission of Inquiry into the Prevention of Child Abuse, took evidence from 450 organisations and more than 1,000 survivors of abuse.
Among 85 recommendations, it called for a minister and a commissioner for children, extra support for parents, and media safeguards to ensure the child's best interests were considered in reporting cases involving abuse.