Ministers warned that drugs and drink are imposing unbearable strains on children's panels, reports David Henderson
CHILDREN'S hearings cannot cope with the rise in violent criminal behaviour by young people, increasingly driven by drink and drugs, a Scottish law professor has warned.
Fresh alternatives, including compulsory reparations to victims, should be investigated to help offenders integrate more successfully into what they regard as an "alien" adult life, Joe Thomson of Glasgow University says.
Professor Thomson's comments follow publication last week of two Scottish Executive-backed reports on the hearings system which call for earlier intervention in the lives of troubled children. The first signs of long-term problems are detected when children aged between eight and 10 are first referred to the children's reporter, often for offences.
A small group (8 per cent) were responsible for more than a quarter of all young people's offences in a study carried out by Edinburgh University researchers. Many failed to change their ways and faced imprisonment before the age of 18. Up to the age of 16, persistent offenders often showed little respect for hearings.
"The issue of non-cooperation is a serious and practical issue in dealing with young people who offend," the researchers state.
Professor Thomson, presently seconded to the Scottish Law Commission, said the type of offence committed by children had changed radically over the 30 years since the hearings system was introduced. Violent crime was on the increase and children were raised in environments where traditional social and family values no longer exist.
"Given the limited resources available, how can the children's hearing system cope with the child offender? Indeed, is a welfare-based response any longer appropriate?" he asked. "Serious attempts must be made to make these children recognise the often appalling consequences of their behaviour in order to help them integrate into what they perceive as an alien society."
There was also little point having a hearings system if, in 84 per cent of the cases that went before the panel, the decision was the same as that recommended by social workers, a compulsory, non-residential, supervision order.
Further challenges are certain to emanate from civil rights campaigners who are preparing to deploy the European Convention on Human Rights against a system they allege is unfair to children and families.
Sam Galbraith, Children and Education Minister, has already rejected a fundamental review. Mr Galbraith said last year that the principles underlying the Kilbrandon report which led to the system being set up in 1968 and the revised 1995 Act "have served us well over the years".
The focus, he pointed out, was often on offenders but care and protection rferrals accounted for 50 per cent of cases. He rejects the idea of reparations.
The Edinburgh University study, the latest in a series on hearings, tracked 1,155 children through the system between 1995 and 1997. The majority were aged 12 to 15 and two-thirds were boys. Almost half (46 per cent) were in lone parent families and state benefit was the main means of income for 55 per cent of families. One in five children had a health problem or disability.
Nearly three out of four children were already known to the hearings system with an average of eight previous referrals per child. Just over a third had been looked after away from home and the early age of referral was a warning sign of trouble ahead.
Many of the children jointly reported by the police to the reporter and the procurator fiscal experienced greater social adversity. But most had their supervision orders terminated because of their non-cooperation, a point picked up by Mr Galbraith in his address to the national conference on hearings last year.
The study also found that one in 10 of children entering the hearings system in February 1995 was under supervision two years later. Just under half of the children already under supervision were still under it two years later.
Parents and children were broadly positive and well informed about the hearings system, which they considered to be fair. They commented favourably on the sympathy of panel members and the professionalism of reporters.
But their sense of the boundaries between the hearings and social work departments was often blurred, which led some to question the independence of the panel.
The Evaluation of Children's Hearings in Scotland, volume 3, Children in Focus, and volume 4, Where do we go from here? Conference proceedings are published by the Scottish Executive. Ministers warned that drugs and drink are imposing unbearable strains on children's panels, reports David Henderson AT RISK SIGNS
* Patterns of poor school performance, academic failure and being seen as troublesome, particularly in children aged eight to 10, are associated with delinquent activity, Edinburgh University researchers found.
* Only 26 per cent of children referred to the reporter for offending were reported as having good relations with peers at school and only 31 of the 465 children in that category were described as popular. Thirty-eight per cent were described as aggressive or having trouble mixing with peers.
* The majority had difficulties with teachers, 100 were described as antagonistic, 50 as aggressive and 32 as uncommunicative. Reporters said they were likely to be disruptive, unpredictable and lacking motivation.
* Reporters also said that three out of four children referred for offences had unsatisfactory parental attitudes to school.