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Hearings system fails 'hostages to fortune'

CHILDREN are being held "hostages to fortune" due to a growing crisis in the children's hearing system, according to one of its leading officials.

Malcolm Schaffer, manager of the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration in the east of Scotland, says a shortage of staff and resources is undermining the service, and the problems are reinforced by inconsistencies in approaches across the country.

Addressing the Howard League for Penal Reform in Scotland last week, Mr Schaffer said that compulsory supervision orders were not being carried out due to the shortage of social workers. There are also not enough of these staff adequately trained and qualified to work with families and children, he said.

Children recommended for fostering placements are being left at home because no placement can be found, Mr Schaffer said. In one recent case a child ended up in a homeless unit instead of a secure unit. "There were simply no places available even though the panel deemed the secure unit was the best place for the child," he said.

Mr Schaffer added: "Legal decisions are not being implemented. If this was translated into the adult system, there would be an outcry."

He was also critical of the lack of provision for children and young people with mental health problems, and of the length of time to bring a case in front of a panel. "It can take up to nine months before a case is heard. What kind of impact is that going to have on the child? We do have time-scale standards but these are not being adhered to."

Mr Schaffer went on to defend the hearings system against criticisms that as many as 70 per cent of cases referred to reporters are not being brought before panels. "Cases need only be heard if compulsory measures are being considered. The child may be diverted into restorative justice projects which is not a soft option. Or they could be placed voluntarily under supervision or in a community scheme for young offenders."

Community-based projects were proving successful with persistent young offenders and they were also extremely cost effective, Mr Schaffer argued. He cited one project, in the Greendykes area of Edinburgh, involving the police, social work and the reporter working with school pupils who attended on a voluntary basis.

"This has succeeded in reducing their offending in both the short and long term, at minimal cost. This shows what we can achieve if we work together."

But he warned: "These projects are fragmented and short-term. There is no consistency in approach nor clear measure and application of what works."

Of the 60,162 cases heard by panels throughout Scotland last year, there was an increase in those concerned with care and protection as opposed to offending. "This is a sign of the system's success," Mr Schaffer said. "It doesn't indicate more is happening but that there is a greater awareness, at an early stage, of the impact of drugs and alcohol abuse."

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