Rewriting the rules for referral

Scotland’s unique and much-admired children’s hearings system is
now well over 30 years old, so perhaps it is hardly surprising that
some feel it is due for an overhaul.

Last year the Scottish executive began an extensive review of the
whole system by gauging people’s views on what areas work well and
what needs to be updated and improved.

The result was the consultation paper Getting it right for
every child
, published at the end of June, which stresses that
children should only be referred to children’s hearings when
compulsory measures are required.

It also proposes rewriting the grounds for referral so that they
focus on the “significant need” of a child, rather than one
particular offence or incident.

At the same time, the Scottish executive outlined plans to
streamline services for children at risk, including:

* Allocating vulnerable children one lead professional to
co-ordinate action
* Introducing one action plan and one set of paperwork for each
* Placing agencies under a legal duty to ensure young people get
the support and care they need, with those failing being called
before a sheriff
* Listening to young people’s views and building these into action

Minister for education and young people Peter Peacock maintains
there are a number of good reasons for reforming the hearings
system. “The number of referrals on offence grounds has doubled and
those on non-offence grounds have gone up by about 50 per cent,” he
says. “So a system that was dealing with 46,000 kids in 2003/04 is
now dealing with nearly 80,000 and that is not sustainable.”

Peacock claims one reason too many children are being referred is
because not enough action is being taken by agencies at a local
level to prevent it from happening in the first place.

“Part of the consequence of that is that kids get referred into the
hearings system, which then tries to provide the co-ordination and
delivery of certain services that ought to happen as a matter of
good practice.”

He denies that the changes are about cutting costs by raising the
threshold for hearings, insisting: “We are setting out to get a
more effective system and to release resources into more
therapeutic, good practice relationships, rather than spending time
filling in bits of paper.”

Child care charity Children 1st welcomes moves to ensure that
children should only appear before a hearing where compulsory
measures are needed.

“We also agree with increased powers for the reporter to ensure
that support, where appropriate, is available without compulsion or
proceeding to a hearing,” says the charity’s director of children’s
and family services, Maggie Mellon.

NCH Scotland believes the reforms are heading in the right
direction and could lead to a more effective system.

However, assistant director of public policy David Turnbull warns:
“One of the problems identified in the first phase of the review
was the lack of resources to translate panel decisions into action
and, at the end of the day, resources are the key issue.

“Social work agencies could be punished if they don’t provide
proper support and I’m not sure that’s the solution.

“But the issue will remain a high priority politically – it can’t
be ignored. And that will be a good thing in the long run for the
children’s hearing system.”

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