Angus Skinner, chief inspector of social work services, told The TES Scotland this week: "Youth crime and the handling of troubled youngsters is one issue that has not been cracked. There must be a strong emphasis on integrated working between education, social work and the police."
Mr Skinner said that local authorities should draw on examples of good practice such as Freagarrach, a multi-agency project for persistent offenders aged 12 16 in central Scotland. A community-based resource, its activities include a computer link to the police for early detection of offending behaviour, work with individuals and groups, and close links with schools.
Mr Skinner said that Freagarrach exemplified "strong co-ordination between agencies, good information flow and a well worked out strategy". But he added:
"This is not true of everywhere. Our difficulty is that there are good projects but they are not being mainstreamed. Meanwhile mainstream provision is not sufficiently integrated."
On the contentious issue of keeping children in police custody, Mr Skinner dismissed a recommendation by a national planning group that the Executive draft a national protocol on how agencies should work together. "Protocols are best worked out as a local arrangement," he said.
Alan Miller, head of the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration, who chaired a subgroup of the national planning group that looked at the issue of children in police cells, said that good communications between agencies was vital "so decisions which have to be made often within short time-scales are informed decisions".
Mr Miller cited the example of police officers who were "presented in the early hours of the morning with youngsters who appear out of control". Decisions on custody were hampered by not receiving "background information which may cast a different light on their behaviour".
Tom Wood, Deputy Chief Constable of Lothian and Borders, said: "It is incredible there is no guidance from the centre. Local arrangements can be good, bad or indifferent but without co-ordination there is no effective means of identifying good practice."
In Edinburgh, talks are already under way between senior social workers and the police over child runaways from care. Mr Wood said: "We do not want to detain children, but we are more often than not left with no alternative."
Police custody was needed because of a lack of emergency secure accommodation.
At national social services level, Mr Skinner concedes that at times there is "a problem of availability of secure accommodation at the point it is needed". This was caused by inappropriate placements and bed blocking.