Early intervention may hold key to solving Scotland’s crime fears

The growth in the number of children referred to Scottish authorities because of concerns about their welfare has raised fears of an explosion in youth offending (news, 17 November).

According to the Scottish Children’s Reporter’s Administration (SCRA) annual report, published last week, children referred on welfare grounds to reporters – who assess whether cases should be put before the country’s children’s hearing system – rose by 12 per cent between 2003-4 and 2004-5 to 37,460. This followed a 12 per cent rise the previous year.

The figures suggest an increase in the abuse and neglect of children and the number living in poor conditions. But some professionals also point out that children referred to reporters on welfare grounds are also more likely to be referred on offending grounds in future.

Bernadette Doherty, chair of the Association of Directors of Social Work’s children and families committee, says there is a strong correlation between welfare and offending referrals.

“Those who start off on welfare grounds are more likely to go through and commit offences,” she says. “We have to invest more in trying to help children who are vulnerable so they don’t become offenders later.”

Keith Simpson, head of development and research at crime reduction organisation Sacro, expects the recent increase in welfare referrals to be reflected in future youth offending rates. “Until we see a reduction in the number referred on welfare grounds I don’t expect to see a drop in offending,” he says.

Others see things differently, suggesting that vulnerable children identified earlier are more likely to receive help to tackle problems.

“To my mind it’s due to increased awareness among professionals and society of care and protection issues,” says Ruth Stark, Scottish professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers. “If you can get in early enough you can prevent young people ending up in the hearing system for offending.”

Tam Bailey, assistant director at Barnardo’s Scotland, agrees, saying: “There is evidence to suggest persistent offenders now were welfare referrals earlier, but if you can get resources in to address problems you can avoid having to firefight at a later date.”

The SCRA report could support this theory: increases in referrals for offending rose by 6 per cent between 2003-4 and 2004-5, compared with a 13 per cent rise the previous year.

But reducing offending requires investment in preventive services by councils. Doherty says the rise in welfare referrals has put more pressure on authorities without a commensurate increase in funding from the Scottish executive.

She says, although the executive has poured additional funding into tackling youth offending, it has not done the same for councils’ core children’s services, while Stark says child protection teams have been particularly stretched by increasing caseloads.

Reporters referred just over 11 per cent of welfare cases directly to local authorities to deal with in 2004-5, with a similar proportion referred to the children’s hearings system for compulsory ntervention.

But proposals in the Children’s Hearings Bill could reduce those able to access support through it. Maggie Mellon, director of children and families at child protection charity Children 1st, says the bill broadens reporters’ options for finding alternatives to referring to the hearing system. But she adds: “The worry has to be whether children’s needs will be met at all or whether they will be lost and nothing happens. The reason for the increase [in referrals] is the lack of services, so their availability and quality is of paramount importance.”

For the SCRA, the increase in children referred partly reflects changes in police practices. Tom Philliben, director of reporter operations, says, although more awareness of welfare issues has influenced referral rates, the fact that police now notify reporters of all cases of domestic violence involving children has also had an impact. “We remain concerned about the number of children in Scotland living in adverse conditions. But we are not fully behind the figures yet to understand why the increase is happening,” he adds.

  • SCRA annual report at www.scra.gov.uk

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