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Children's panel referrals reach all-time high

The number of referrals to children's panel reporters is greater than ever, according to the first annual report of the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration since the service was nationalised following local government reform.

The 46,309 referrals was an increase of 1 per cent on 1995, but only 28 per cent of decisions by reporters went to a full hearing before the children's panel. More than half of cases involved children who have allegedly committed an offence, with the remainder in various categories of victim.

Abuse is the greatest factor among victims, involving 6,177 referrals. This is a slight decrease on 1995 although the report ascribes the fall to short-term deficiencies in the referrals system following local government reorganisation "rather than any real change in the exposure of children to abuse or neglect". Lack of parental care accounted for 4,970 cases, an increase of 300. Referrals for non-attendance at school generated 4,420 cases, up from 4,262 in 1995.

The number of children referred represented 26.2 per thousand children under the age of 16. Some may be referred because they are both a victim and an offender.

The number of children reported for committing an offence, which had been falling steadily until 1993, rose for the third year running to the same level as it reached in 1987. But the report says the number of offences actually fell so offences per child, contrary to popular perception, also dropped from 2.8 to 2.7 per thousand of the under-16s.

Although the report presents a picture of a service triumphing over the upheaval of reorganisation, a recent significant judgment from the European Court on Human Rights could undermine the panel system's efforts to promote "the best interests of the child", according to experts on children's rights.

The European ruling insists that parents are entitled to all documents submitted to hearings, including oral and written information. Sally Kuenssberg, who chairs the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration, says that precluding children from giving confidential information to panel members "could have very serious, even dangerous, consequences for them".

Alan Miller, the principal reporter, suggests that the decision will hit children "who aren't in a position to take action to secure their own rights". The rights of children and parents are often irreconcilable, Mrs Kuenssberg says.

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