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'Getting it Right for Every Child' - The Review of the Children's Hearing System '

The Scottish Executive Consultation Paper on the Review of the Children's Hearing System.

The UNISON Scotland Response.

July 2004

Executive summary

UNISON Scotland firmly believes that the current review must focus on strengthening the Hearings system, not on dismantling it. The current system is grounded on a welfare-based, child-centred philosophy, which deals with vulnerable children who require care and protection or whom need their offending behaviour tackled. That ethos is crucial to the system's success. To split the system into a care and protection system and a punishment system would in the opinion of UNISON Scotland be a retrograde step, rather than an improvement to the system.

UNISON Scotland believes that the shortage of Child Protection social workers is a major factor in the current failings of the Children's Hearings system. It is a matter of fact that there are not enough people doing the job. The 2003 Audit Scotland report highlights that problem succinctly, its findings stated that between 300 and 500 children on supervision were estimated not to be getting the service that the children's hearings had prescribed. In addition, the report from the Council on Tribunals, the Child Protection Audit and Review and an Executive Central Research Unit Report into home supervision all found that social work services were lacking in ways that compromised the Children's Hearings system's ability to do its job.

Based on this evidence and the experiences of our own members in youth justice UNISON Scotland believes that until social work issues are resolved, the Children's Hearings system will continue to fail some children.

UNISON Scotland also believes that if the children's hearings system is to realise its full potential and serve the needs of vulnerable children as well as the needs of those who offend, it must be fully resourced. This is not the case at present.

UNISON Scotland members in youth justice regularly encounter examples of needs not being met. Many Panel decisions are currently not being implemented or properly supervised because of the lack of trained social workers and the lack of places on specialist programmes and—at the extreme—places in secure accommodation.

UNISON Scotland also believes that the Children's Hearings system must be careful about becoming too specialist in its approach. We acknowledge that the task that we ask panel members to perform is incredibly complex and that it is appropriate to consider appropriate training of a generalist nature. However, we fear that a move to specialisation on Panels would threaten wider community involvement in the system.

 Introduction

This paper constitutes UNISON Scotland's response to the Scottish Executive consultation document 'Getting it Right for Every Child - Review of the Children's Hearing System'.

UNISON is Scotland's largest trade union representing over 145,000 members working in the public sector. UNISON Scotland represents workers from both the Scottish Children's Reporters Administration and from Children and Families Social Work teams in all of Scotland's 32 local authorities.

UNISON Scotland welcomes the opportunity to put forward our views regarding the review of the Children's Hearing System and to voice the wider concerns of our members who work in the field of youth justice.

Responses

 

1. The Objectives of the Children's Hearing System

UNISON Scotland is supportive of the Executive's objectives for the Children's Hearings System as outlined in the consultation document. We are pleased to support the Executives vision of a system that will make decisions based on children's needs, deliver effective outcomes for children and their families and which will also enjoy the confidence of local communities.

However, whilst we are able to give our broad support to the Executive's stated objectives for the Hearings system, we are disappointed that the Executive has not seen fit to make a clear commitment in terms of resources.

It is the opinion of UNISON Scotland that if the children's hearings system is to realise its full potential and serve the needs of vulnerable children as well as the needs of those who offend, there must be a commitment to properly resource the service. UNISON Scotland believes that service improvement will only be realistically achieved by a long-term commitment ensuring that additional budgets and resources are allocated to the Children's Hearings system.

UNISON Scotland believes that you cannot consider the Children's Hearing's system in isolation from wider social work issues. We believe that until issues such as recruitment, retention and low morale within social work are resolved, the children's hearings system will continue to fail some children.

There is a clear link between an efficient and effectively functioning Children's Hearings system and properly resourced Children and Families Social Work services. Indeed, a recent Audit Scotland report found that the current shortage of Children & Families social workers effectively translates into around 400 children a year failing to get the service they require from the Children's Hearings system.

With this in mind, UNISON Scotland gives a cautious welcome to the Executive's recent announcement of a review of Scotland's social work services. We hope to put forward the views of our members and to work closely with the 21st Century Social Work Group to enhance the pay and conditions that will attract and retain staff in Children and Families teams throughout Scotland.

 

2. The Principles of the Children's Hearing System

UNISON Scotland is broadly supportive of the principles for the Children's Hearings System outlined in the consultation document. We are pleased to support the Executives vision of a system that is grounded on a welfare-based, child-centred philosophy and which deals with vulnerable children who require care and protection or who need their offending behaviour tackled.

UNISON Scotland is convinced that the Kilbrandon rationale remains sound and that this ethos is crucial to the continued success of the Children's Hearings system. We believe that splitting this system into a care and protection system and a punishment system would be a retrograde step that would not improve the overall effectiveness of the Panel system.

UNISON Scotland is concerned that at present many Panels in Scotland maybe prevented from arriving at their decisions based solely upon what they believe to be best for the child. Rather, some Panels maybe arriving at decisions based upon what disposal options are available to them within their local authority area. This is a clearly a resources issue and one which must be addressed promptly if the Hearings system is to realise its full potential and serve the needs of vulnerable children.

UNISON Scotland is concerned that the lack of disposal options available to many Panels will have a destabilising effect on the whole Children's Hearing's system. As such, UNISON Scotland would like to have seen a statement of intent regarding future funding levels and the inclusion of a principle stating that the Panel system would at all times arrive at decisions based solely upon what they believe to be best for the child.

 

3. Improving Outcomes

Whilst recognising that every child dealt with by the Hearings system has different needs, UNISON Scotland believes that the Children's Hearing's system should be able to offer every child whom it deals with a core set of outcomes.

This should mean that the Hearings system should be able to ensure that there has been a reduction in the identified need of the child and that the child is able to live and function in an environment free from intimidation and physical harm.

The Scottish Children's Hearing's system is internationally renowned for its holistic approach to children's needs and one in which all agencies need to co-operate to achieve the desired outcome for a child. This is why UNISON Scotland believes that in the Children's Hearing's system, similar outcomes should apply to all the relevant agencies. We firmly believe that to deal with only one aspect of the underlying problem that effects a child is an approach that will ultimately fail the child.

 

4. Single System

UNISON Scotland is supportive of the current generalist nature of the Children's Hearings system. The Children's Hearings system considers the child in the round and takes into account all aspects of the child's life as part of a joined up approach.

UNISON Scotland believes that it must not be destroyed by partial or wholesale removal of its work on youth justice and we trust that the founding principles of the system will remain as the foundations for building better-funded, better-resourced and better-supported services.

UNISON Scotland's members who work in the field of youth justice believe there is general confidence in cases that go to panels and in the decisions that are reached by lay people—who have training, but not specialist training—sitting together and administering lay justice. We believe that this is supported by the evidence on how few panel decisions are appealed in the sheriff court, even though that course is open to anybody whose child is placed on a supervision requirement.

UNISON Scotland does not favour the specialisation of Panel members. We consider it a strength of the current system that Panel members are trained in a generalist manner and are able to deal with any case coming before a Children's Hearing. It should be remembered that Panel members already have access to specialised advice if they wish, Reporters are present in an advisory capacity at all Hearings and Panel members are also able to call on reports from specialists prior to arriving at decisions.

In addition, UNISON Scotland is concerned that specialisation will be detrimental to the overall effectiveness of the Children's Panel system. Firstly, a drive towards specialisation on Panels could give the impression that specialisation is a prerequisite to volunteering and could prevent wider community involvement in Children's Panels. Secondly, we believe there is a danger that specialisation could also give undue relevance on Panels to the person who is perceived to be the expert.

UNISON Scotland believes it is essential that a joined-up approach is taken to policy and practice in relation to youth offending and child protection. Our members who work in the field of youth justice are supportive of a single assessment framework for children and the development of IT systems to allow the appropriate sharing of information across agencies.

UNISON Scotland does not believe that giving the Children's Hearings system the lead role in co-ordinating action across all interventions involving children to be an effective way to ensure decisions are taken consistently. Our members in SCRA do not perceive their role as one in which they should be held responsible for co-ordinating action across all interventions or indeed one in which they should be held responsible for ensuring consistency in decision-making.

Rather, our membership is of the opinion that the provision of ‘co-ordinated' training programs for both Reporters and Panel members, incorporating the latest research and understanding in the field of child protection, would be more effective in enabling the different agencies to achieve greater consistency.

UNISON Scotland would suggest that the task of co-ordinating action would be better suited to a body like the Social Work Services Inspectorate, whose stated purpose is to work with others to continually improve social work services.

UNISON Scotland recognises that there is always room for improvement within the Panel system and does not have a difficulty with the proposal to ensure better evaluation on the impact of interventions on children dealt with by the Hearings system.

However, we would make two points on this matter. Firstly, it is the consideration of our membership in youth justice that in cases where children have left the system such an undertaking is largely unfeasible. Secondly, it must be recognised that evaluation of every child who passes through the Children's Hearings system is a massive undertaking and one that will require huge investment and the allocation of adequate resources if it is to be successful. The Executive should be aware that this task cannot be done on the cheap.

 

5. The Hearings System and Parents

In our response the Anti-social Behaviour consultation UNISON Scotland welcomed, in principle, the introduction of Parenting Orders (POs). However, we qualified this support with a hope that parents who had a PO granted against did not simply experience this as a punitive measure but as a measure that included positive benefits in supporting them to provide better parenting for their child. This remains our position in regards to POs.

It is a popular misconception that the Panel system somehow lacks the ability to influence parents. Parents attend the hearings with their children and are not only party to what is going on but are also essential partners in the process. In addition, the Children's Hearings system also has open-ended powers to attach conditions under Supervision Requirements and a Panel has at its disposal a number of mechanisms for directing parents to engage with the development of their child.

UNISON Scotland is concerned that the proposals within the Antisocial Behaviour Bill to give Reporters and Children's Hearings the powers to call for the issue of POs will place further demands on a service which is already stretched. Apart from the obvious funding and resource issues our members have serious misgivings regarding the ability of the system to effectively police POs.

UNISON Scotland is opposed to the Children's Hearings system having penalty powers over parents who breach POs. It is our belief that to do so would open up the prospect of legal representation being brought into a system that has functioned effectively up until now with only a minimal degree of official legal representation.

UNISON Scotland is opposed to the idea of establishing ‘Family Hearings'. We believe strongly that the focus of the current system must continue to be on the needs of the individual child, rather than on the parents or siblings.

 

6. Hearings and the Community

UNISON Scotland is aware that many people within Scotland's communities do not have faith in the Children's Hearings system. We believe that for a system that uses the commitment, skills and input of trained members of the local community, to reach decisions on what is best for a child within that community, this lack of community confidence is concerning.

UNISON Scotland can offer a number of suggestions on how we believe this confidence can be restored. Firstly, the Children's Hearings system can be more pro-active in making the community aware of its role and also be less reticent in communicating its successes within the community.

Secondly, Children's Hearings system could perhaps adopt a more user-friendly approach. This does not mean detracting from the seriousness of its task but perhaps highlighting the ‘human side' of its work and its commitment to bringing long-lasting improvements in the lives of those children whom it comes into contact with.

UNISON Scotland also believes that individual social workers, Reporters and Panel members all have a role to play in improving links between the Children's Hearings system and local communities. Perhaps by going out into the community with roadshows and visits to schools etc these professionals can help counteract the negative impressions that many people have regarding the system and in turn create a more positive image of the Children's Hearings system and the work it does.

UNISON Scotland considers it vitally important that the Children's Hearings system retains the principle of having local volunteers deal with local cases. We believe that Panel members extra knowledge of a child's surrounding and of the services that are available locally enhances the Panels understanding of a case and is one of the systems key strengths.

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For Further Information Please Contact:

Matt Smith, Scottish Secretary
UNISONScotland
UNISON House
14, West Campbell Street,
Glasgow G2 6RX

Tel 0141-332 0006 Fax 0141 342 2835

e-mail matt.smith@unison.co.uk

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