New Scottish children’s commissioner sets out his mission

Tam Baillie is Scotland’s latest commissioner for children and young people. He spoke to David Mitchell

Scotland’s new children’s champion Tam Baillie often refers to the time he spent managing a Glasgow streetwork initiative when advocating the cause of children’s rights.

“I was an experienced worker but was shocked at what we were coming across in those young people on the streets,” he recalls. “The level of violence, drug use and detachment really was an eye-opener.

“When you’ve worked with young people living in the most desperate circumstances it becomes part of your make-up. That’s one of my motivating factors in trying to make sure there are fair chances for all children.”

Replaced Kathleen Marshall

Baillie recently took over from Kathleen Marshall as Scotland’s commissioner for children and young people, after six years as director of policy for Barnardo’s Scotland and chair of the Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights.

During a 30-year career, he has worked with young offenders, young homeless people and young people leaving care. These experiences have left him with a keen appreciation of the importance of children’s rights which he is determined to pursue.

“That’ll be a major theme – for people to gain a better understanding of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,” he says. “Many professional staff are helping realise children’s rights, but they might not frame it in terms of the Convention. We need to find a way of popularising what’s contained in the Convention.”

Poverty and inequality

Baillie believes the key underlying issues are poverty and inequality, and support for children during their early years.

“Unless we have a more equal society, we will always have some people disproportionately represented in our problem areas such as teenage pregnancy, substance misuse and early mortality,” he says. “We need more comprehensive support for children in their early years, including before they are born.”

Baillie intends to work on behalf of specific marginalised groups including young people leaving care, youngsters with disabilities, young adolescents, children of asylum seekers and children of prisoners. He also wants to focus on increasing the involvement of children: “I’d like to have contact with teachers and classes of children so that I can speak with authority about engaging children and young people,” he says. “I also want to work through children’s organisations and the children’s workforce.”

Increasing scrutiny

Baillie recognises that professionals are under increasing scrutiny following media coverage of child deaths such as baby Peter in Haringey and Brandon Muir in Dundee.

“The problem with wall-to-wall coverage of these tragedies is that they mask the very good work done by not only social work but the whole child protection system,” he says. “These tragedies are exactly that. But day in and day out, people are making difficult, sometimes life-saving decisions that never get anywhere near the light of day.” To this end, he welcomes Social Work Changes Lives, the Association of Directors of Social Work’s initiative, and Community Care’s Stand Up Now for Social Work campaign.

But he admits practitioners continue to struggle to get the balance right in terms of when to act when children may be unsafe.

“The central tenet that the best place for a child is at home is under severe pressure because of the dangers sometimes posed by parents who have serious problems,” he says. “But we are always going to have to support children in families. If we move too far the other way, we will be overwhelmed by the number of children in care. And it’s not good for their future because it’s important that we value those family relations.”

Tam Baillie career highlights

● Baillie began his career working with young offenders in social services teams in Strathclyde, Nottingham and Liverpool.

● He set up Glasgow’s first direct access hostel for young homeless people in 1986.

● He was appointed director of policy for Barnardo’s Scotland in 2003, helping influence Scottish government legislation on Asbos, child poverty and free school meals.

This article is published in the 13 August 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline “I know what it’s like on the streets”

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