Come closer and listen

8th March 2013 at 00:00
The new children's hearing system is set to become more consistent and child-friendly. Find out how it affects you

The general public does not understand the children's hearing system. That makes it all the more important for young Scots to be taught in school about the country's largest tribunal, says the head of the body that will take over the running of the system in a few months' time.

Educating young people about the children's hearing system would help prepare them in case they end up before a panel themselves. And it could help attract younger panel members, suggests Bernadette Monaghan, convener of Children's Hearings Scotland.

She says: "The general public doesn't understand the children's hearing system or what panel members do particularly well. We have got to raise awareness at an early age."

Ms Monaghan also calls for teachers to be released more readily to give evidence to panels. Written reports are often received from schools but anecdotal evidence suggests that teachers rarely appear in person, she says.

"A lot of the time decisions are made on the basis of social work reports, but it's really good to get other professionals round the table. The children's panel is the largest tribunal in Scotland; it's the forum where life-changing decisions are made about children and young people, and I think, where possible, teachers should attend."

The children's hearing system was introduced to Scotland in 1971 as a means of keeping children who had offended or were in need of care out of the justice system (see panel, page 15).

Today it is in a state of flux, with Ms Monaghan and the body she represents - Children's Hearings Scotland - a major part of the change.

Things got off to a shaky start, she says. In December 2011, Ms Monaghan hit the headlines after being suspended eight months into her job as convener while unspecified allegations against her were investigated.

She's been back in post for a year and things have settled down, she says. All claims against her were rejected and both members of CHS staff involved in the allegations against her have now left the organisation.

Her suspension, however, contributed to the decision to delay the introduction of major changes to the children's hearing system until 24 June this year, as opposed to the original target of September last year.

The strength of the children's hearing system is that it sees a child as a child, no matter what they have done, Ms Monaghan says. Court would be the alternative, she points out. But in a bid to make the system better, its flaws have been exposed and picked over.

In evidence to the Scottish Parliament's education committee, everything from the inconsistency of decisions by panels across the country to accusations that panels have a "one-more-chance" mentality, with parents being given one more chance to carry on neglecting and abusing children, have been highlighted.

Cases of cumulative neglect or emotional abuse, which have extremely damaging long-term effects on children but are difficult to demonstrate, are often poorly handled by panels, claims the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

NSPCC Scotland public affairs officer Joanne Smith argues: "The cumulative, corrosive impact of abuse and neglect on children's long-term life chances is not sufficiently recognised, with the result that decision-making at the children's hearing stage can be indecisive or delayed."

One of the main aims of the changes being introduced is to improve consistency of decision making, Ms Monaghan says.

"We aspire and hope to ensure that in future there is greater consistency of decision making, with sound evidence and reasons for decision making as well as feedback to panel members," she says.

The Children's Hearings (Scotland) Act 2011 creates the role of a national convener to be the figurehead and voice of Scotland's 2,700 panel members and establishes Children's Hearings Scotland to support the national convener.

The aim is to have a system that is nationally consistent but locally delivered, says Kit Wyeth, head of the Scottish government's children's hearing team, who was tasked with keeping the reforms on track during Ms Monaghan's suspension.

A national curriculum, as the training programme is described, is being introduced and 30 children's panel advisory committees - the bodies that manage panels - will be replaced by 22 area support teams.

They will have many of the same functions but rather than there being 30 different sets of forms about observing panel members in practice, for instance, these will be standardised across the country. So, too, will recommendations about making appointments, dealing with complaints, the expenses payment methods and so on.

"It is fair to say that at the moment the processes and procedures across the country are inconsistent," Ms Monaghan says. "In this day and age in the children's panel, such a situation is not acceptable."

Having the national panel will mean panel members can cross boundaries if, for instance, there is a shortage of male members in a particular area. And if panel members resign from one area of the country, they will no longer have to reapply and retrain in another.

Arguably the most important role of area support teams, however, will be to keep the lines of communication open between local panels and the national convener. It will be their job to examine local trends and make panel members aware of the implications of their decisions.

Ms Monaghan adds: "We need to work more on outcomes: what is the impact of a compulsory supervision order? What does home supervision look like? Panel members were saying they see a young person, they go away and they don't know what happens to them."

Another central objective of the reform is to make the hearings more child-friendly; it is hoped children's views and opinions will be heard more effectively in the future through the introduction of advocacy support.

Children subject to hearings complain about the use of jargon or "big words"; not knowing what to expect; not knowing their rights; and not being listened to, according to a summary of research into children's views of the hearing system published last month by CHS.

The children want panel members to have more training in talking and listening to them; for them to talk to the child or young person first, not other adults; and to be able to meet the panel before hearings.

There has been no research looking into ethnic minority children's experience of hearings, CHS analysis reveals, with information also non- existent about the opinions of children who do not have English as their first language, children with disabilities and children with learning difficulties.

Mr Wyeth says: "At the moment, there are cases when a child will arrive at a hearing not knowing whether mum or dad will be there and not knowing who to expect to see around the table, which can be incredibly unsettling. The preparatory work that is done with the children should mean - if nothing else - that they go into the room knowing exactly who will be there. If they have not seen their dad for six months and he will be there, they should know that in advance. Hopefully, that will mean that they feel better prepared and better able to contribute to the hearing."

Advocacy coverage across Scotland is "patchy", he says. And how it might look in the future remains unclear. The issue is being examined by the advocacy working group, which will determine what the support should look like, which children should access it and how.

The introduction of such a service would be "a huge step forward in protecting children", believes children's hearings training officer Barbara Reid.

"One of the biggest failures in the hearings system has been that, despite the fact that children have the right to bring someone to a hearing with them, 40 years on children still do not do that. If we could empower children to bring someone to a hearing to act as an advocate for them - to talk for them - that would be one of the best things that we could achieve for children," she says. "Parents are articulate and get solicitors and other people to come, but the child is left in a room in which the adults are all arguing and there is no one to support them."

In future, it is even more likely that parents will have legal representation. Currently, legal aid provision does not cover representation by a solicitor at hearings but the new act will make legal aid available.

The fear is that solicitors, more skilled at arguing the points, will succeed in taking the panels' focus off the child. Already the European Convention on Human Rights has led to more solicitors taking part in hearings and a more adversarial situation, many report.

Ms Monaghan continues: "We are anticipating more lawyers will come to hearings because assistance is available through the Scottish Legal Aid Board, but then again there will be certain standards for solicitors to meet if they want to provide representations. I'm comfortable with it - it should be available and is something we have to manage."

Malcolm Schaffer, the head of policy at the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration, is also optimistic: "This will be a huge positive in cases where parents really cannot represent themselves and need assistance," he says.

In a bid to uncover whether all this change is making a difference to Scottish children, the government is looking at setting outcomes for the children's hearing system. These might include looking at the number of young people going through the children's hearing system who ultimately end up in the adult criminal justice system, Ms Monaghan says.

But it will be tough to unpick what impact the children's hearing system alone has had on a child's life, says Professor Susan McVie, co-director of the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime, which is tracking 4,300 children who started S1 in Edinburgh in 1998 and are now aged about 25.

"We know that children who go through the hearing system are in touch with a range of agencies. How do you disentangle what the children's hearing does or does not do?" asks Professor McVie, who herself served as a panel member for six years.

Professor McVie agrees with Ms Monaghan that keeping children out of the criminal justice system is the right thing to do, but argues that the new legislation will not tackle resource issues.

She continues: "Panel members make decisions but often these can't be implemented because services are not always available in all communities. Children often receive generic social work intervention, which ranges in quality from regular family meetings to meeting every month or so for a coffee. But the specialist services young people need when they are experiencing problems have always been lacking - access to drug and alcohol programmes, mental health care, programmes to address offending behaviour."

Panel members get "frustrated" when their decisions are not taken seriously and implemented, Ms Monaghan says. In future, if a panel feels that a decision has not been implemented by a local authority, it will be able to invoke a procedure to compel the local authority to do so.

This power used to sit with the principal reporter and can go all the way up to the sheriff principal, she explains. But it has only happened once in the history of SCRA, she points out. While the process has been started about 20 times, matters have always been resolved, she says.

"It's not something that I would encourage panel members to use but it's important for local authorities to know that power exists and they must take the decisions of the panel seriously."

  • 12,831 - Number of referrals on offence grounds
  • 8% - Proportion who had five or more hearings
  • 52,527 - The number of referrals to the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration in 2011-12
  • 1,632 - Number of children referred to the reporter for not attending school
  • 84.7% - Proportion of referrals from the police
  • 13,151 - Number of children referred because they have been the victim of a schedule one offence, which includes physical and sexual abuse, and is the most common reason for referral
  • 39,737 - Number of care and protection referrals
  • 3.5% - Proportion of all children in Scotland referred
  • 4.5% - Proportion of children referred five or more times
  • 43% - Proportion who had a single hearing
  • 72% - Proportion of children referred once

      Children's hearings took over from the courts most of the responsibility for dealing with Scottish children and young people who commit offences or are in need of care and protection in April 1971.

      The system was set up in response to a report by Lord Kilbrandon and has drawn admiration from jurisdictions around the world for more than half a century.

      Scottish children under 16 are only considered for prosecution in court for serious offences, such as murder.

      The grounds for bringing a child or young person before a hearing include that the child:

      • is beyond the control of parents or carers;
      • is at risk of moral danger;
      • is or has been the victim of an offence, including physical injury or sexual abuse;
      • is likely to suffer serious harm to health or development through lack of care;
      • is misusing drugs, alcohol or solvents;
      • has committed an offence;
      • is not attending school regularly without a reasonable excuse;
      • is subject to an antisocial behaviour order and the sheriff requires the case to be referred to a children's hearing.
        • The reporter is an official employed by the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration who decides if a child or young person needs to be referred to a children's hearing.

          A children's hearing consists of three panel members who give their services voluntarily. The hearing listens to the child's circumstances and then decides what measures, if any, are required.


          The number of children referred in Scotland for offending or because they were in need of care and protection dropped by almost 20 per cent in just one year, between 2010-11 and 2011-12.

          It was the fifth consecutive year referrals to the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration had dropped, with the number of children referred in 2011-12 the lowest since 1998-99.

          According to SCRA chair Carole Wilkinson, the downward trend reflects the impact of pre-referral screening and the implementation of the government's Getting it Right for Every Child policy.

          The number of children's hearings, meanwhile, fell for the second year running and by a more modest 2.7 per cent between 2010-11 and 2011-12.

          The proportion of very young children referred to the reporter continues to grow, however. Children under the age of one are, along with 14-year- olds, most likely to be referred on care and protection grounds. Historically, the most common ages to be referred to the reporter have been 14 and 15. The number of Child Protection Orders also increased in 2011-12 for the fourth year in a row.

          Ms Wilkinson continues: "It is interesting to reflect that a system originally designed to deal with children and young people who offend, now receives more referrals for children in need of care and protection."

          The most common ground for referral to SCRA is "victim of a schedule one offence", which includes violent and sexual offences against children. The next most common grounds for referral are "lack of parental care" and "allegedly committed an offence".

          Original headline: Think how you figure in the children's hearing system

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