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Too many children 'born to fail'

School-age youngsters are twice as likely to be victims of offences as they are to be offenders, according to the annual report of the children's panels, which warns that many children in Scotland "seem to be born to fail".

Releasing the statistics last week in an increasingly politically charged atmosphere, the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration indicated for the first time that its own mechanisms may be at fault.

There were 16,470 cases of children referred to the panel reporter for committing offences last year, while 33,379 were on non-offence grounds, reflecting concern for their safety and welfare - and some children were referred on both counts.

At the same time, there has been a dramatic 28 per cent increase in the number of referrals where the child was the victim of an offence, more than double the 13 per cent rise in cases where the child was the offender.

Overall, there was a 12.6 per cent rise in the number of children referred to the reporter which, at 45,793, is an all-time high. It represents one in 20 youngsters.

Douglas Bulloch, chairman of the SCRA, said that early intervention was critical to ensure young people received the help they need when they need it most.

In an unusually frank and hard-hitting foreword to the report, Mr Bulloch and Alan Miller, the principal reporter, who has now stepped down from the job, state: "The influence of alcohol and drugs is becoming an ever more prominent feature in the lives of children experiencing difficulties, both in their own lives and in the lives of the adults responsible for them.

"The disrupted pattern of family life, the neglect that is so often a consequence of parental drug use, the dependency and poverty of aspiration in so many families suggest strongly that we are dealing with children on the wrong side of the opportunity gap.

"Many of our partners in children's services have expressed their concern that so many children in Scotland seem to be born to fail."

But they recognise that, as well as making an effort to break this cycle, the hearings system itself must be made more effective. Recognised as an enlightened approach to "the best interests of the child" when it was set up in 1971, it has many admirers within Scotland - but no other country has emulated the system.

Mr Bulloch and Mr Miller point in their foreword to the importance of demonstrating that hearings, which have often been criticised as a soft option, can be effective in "challenging unacceptable behaviour while placing the interest and welfare of children and young people at the centre of our concerns".

The peak age for children being referred to the reporter is 15, reflecting nearly 9,000 cases last year. A remarkable 10,000 referrals were for youngsters under school age.

Overall the numbers referred to the reporter represent 4.3 per cent of 0-17s, a proportion which ranges from 7.3 per cent in Glasgow to 1.4 per cent in Aberdeenshire. More than 40 per cent of children referred last year came from just five local authority areas.

The only piece of good news for Scottish Executive ministers, who have raised the profile on their efforts to combat antisocial behaviour and "close the opportunity gap", is in the figures for truancy. These show a declining trend, with 3,869 cases disposed of by the reporter, compared with 4,129 three years previously.

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