Children’s hearings system: special report

Children’s practitioners in Scotland have been concerned about the overloading of the country’s hearings system for some time. Now new figures published this week show referrals to children’s reporters are at an all-time high.

Reporters assess children referred by the police and other agencies and decide whether a case needs to go to social work departments or the hearings system.

Scottish executive justice minister Cathy Jamieson has placed much of the blame for the unwelcome rise in referrals on local authorities and crime reduction agencies but is her wrath misdirected?

Social workers are worried that strain on the system means preventive work is being sidelined, and also that some of the most damaged children are not getting enough attention.

Numbers of children referred for offending and over welfare concerns to the Scottish Children’s Reporter’s Administration (SCRA) rose by 10 per cent in 2005/06, the new figures reveal.

Struggling to cope
SCRA and social work departments are already struggling to cope, prompting discussion on whether change is needed.

From a political perspective, the SCRA figures are a major blow scuppering the Scottish executive’s pledge to cut the number of persistent young offenders by 10 per cent. The target is based on 2003/04 levels – but over the past three years numbers have risen by 16 per cent from 1200 to nearly 1400.

Bernadette Doherty, chair of the Association of Directors of Social Work’s children and families sub-committee, thinks police focus on domestic abuse cases is the biggest reason for the increase.

“They are making referrals in the absence of any assessment of whether a child requires compulsory measures or supervision. They will argue that they don’t have the skills to do that, but if they refer all these children then you flood the system,” she explains.

Doherty says that the consequence of this is that social workers’ time is spent on writing background reports for SCRA meaning they have less time for those children with most critical needs.

Preventive work
“My staff spend all their time writing reports and then can’t do preventive work,” explains Doherty.

She says getting earlier assessment of cases would help alleviate this.

“The tools are in place for health, education and police to do assessments at the most simple end of concern while social workers should be left to deal with the complex cases,” she adds.

Doherty is adamant that change needs to happen quickly: “We can’t continue as we are going. My staff are on their knees and the system is in danger of imploding. We are seeing more requests to social work coming through and the risk is we’ll lose the one or two children that have grave needs for a service.”

It is procedure that whenever police investigate a crime where they consider a child’s safety or welfare to be at risk they will now automatically refer the child to the SCRA.

But are all the referrals necessary? In 2004/05, just one in five of the 37,460 welfare cases sent to the SCRA by the police resulted in a child being referred onto the hearings system or social work departments.

Every child referred to the SCRA must have their case investigated.

Compulsory measures
SCRA has to decide whether a child’s case is so severe some form of compulsory measures need to be imposed.

SCRA director of reporting operations Tom Philliben says he is seeing many children referred by police not needing this level of intervention.

Discussions between SCRA, police, social work and education leaders have already taken place. One plan they are looking at is whether cases can be screened by agencies before being formally referred by police to SCRA.

Philliben explains: “What we’re hoping will happen is that a decision will be made about what help they need, who should provide it and whether there is a requirement for a statutory order. It could be more efficient and effective for the case to go straight to the service provider.”

He says SCRA would then only get involved where compulsion was likely to be needed, reducing the demands on its own staff and those required to produce reports for it. He felt screening of cases could be made without a significant impact on social workers’ time.

The police acknowledge that increased referrals have put pressure on SCRA and social work but detective superintendent Iain Livingstone, who is chair of the Association of Chief Police Officers’ child protection working group, says the solution lies with developing a multi-agency approach.

“We’re not positioned to provide some of the welfare services children need. We must come together as a collective rather than focus on demarcations between agencies,” he says.

Tackling antisocial behaviour
The rising figures have drawn a heated response from the Scottish executive, with justice minister Cathy Jamieson placing much of the blame at the door of local authorities and crime reduction agencies. She said too few areas are using all the powers available to them to tackle antisocial and offending behaviour by young people.

Jamieson added: “The fact that reductions of between 10 and 55 per cent in the number of persistent young offenders were achieved in seven local authority areas shows that this is a target that can be met, and our target for 2008 remains in place.”

Strong words – but setting government targets may yet prove to be an easier task than meeting them.



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