More honesty needed in the child protection system

Written by Tom Freeman on 18 April 2017 in Inside Politics

There is space to examine failure as well as celebrate success, delegates at Holyrood’s child protection event heard

Child Protection 2017 - Image credit: Holyrood

Honesty should be at the heart of moves to update Scotland’s child protection system, according to one of the top civil servants working in the field.

Speaking at Holyrood’s recent child protection event, Donald Henderson, the Scottish Government’s Deputy Director for Care and Protection, said this meant recognising both failure and success, as well as understanding the impact adverse childhood experiences have on child development and communities.

“How did the best systems learn? The best systems learn from the mistakes they make, the mistakes that were almost made, or ‘near misses’, and also from the successes. There needs to be an honesty about it,” he said.


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The system in Scotland has been the subject of a comprehensive review led by Catherine Dyer.

In February, Children’s Minister Mark McDonald announced the Scottish Government would accept the recommendations in full, including establishing a national child protection register and legislating to update the definition of neglect to include emotional neglect in order to enable earlier interventions.

Henderson said: “It was clear we needed to look at neglect, for two reasons. Partly because the legislative definition of child neglect is so old. It was good in 1936 and when it was legislated for in 1937, but things have moved on and so has our understanding of child development.”

Scotland has resisted the approach which sees the aftermath of a serious incident following the death of a child turn into a witch-hunt for someone to blame, Henderson suggested.

“In general, the follow-up inquiry usually demonstrates it’s not one person. We have all failed if something like that happens.

“We’re closer to that approach in Scotland over a concerted period, so that should give us the space to be honest about the things that have gone wrong, have almost gone wrong, and also to make sure we do celebrate and understand where success came from.”

The best practice is where agencies and individuals work well together, something which doesn’t even always happen in government, Henderson admitted, despite the national commitment on getting it right for every child (GIRFEC).

At a local level, child protection committees embody collective working in “a multi-agency voice”, but only when the system is recognised, warned North Ayrshire’s Child Protection Lead Officer, Jillian Ingram.

“One question for everyone here is: what is your link to your local child protection committee?” she challenged delegates.

Ahead of further reform, “the time is now for everyone to step up a gear, and for the child protection committees themselves to take a critical look at where they are,” she said.

Part of collective responsibility involves listening to communities, she suggested, a sentiment shared by Barnardo’s Scotland and WhoCares? Scotland.

Barnardo’s policy officer Kirsten Hogg said cross-sector working could only play a part in prevention with “meaningful conversations”.

“My slight anxiety about early intervention and prevention is they are quite nice words to say. We say them quite a lot and write them down even more, but it only becomes meaningful when it comes to putting that into practice.”

And when it comes to engaging with vulnerable young people, she added, “meaningful participation takes a lot of time”.

Taking more time has formed part of attempts to modernise the children’s hearing system, according to Malcolm Schaffer, head of practice and policy at the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration. “The wee things can make a difference,” he said.

In practice, this has meant taking more time before and after the hearing with the child, informal settings, a “timing and timescale that suits the child”, and the establishment of a young people’s board “to hold us to account”.

Strathclyde University’s Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children (CELCIS) has examined the role of the solicitor in hearings, who often represents the parent or adult in a dispute.

This can make the child at the centre more nervous or “make it more adversarial”, researchers found, but ultimately can be a positive influence.

Brian Houston of WhoCares? Scotland said “professional voices are strong and loud”.

One of the responses to a survey of children said: “Sometimes, it’s easier just to shut up and let them chat.”

But of the advocacy provided by the organisation, only 539 of Scotland’s 34,888 children’s hearings had an advocate present.

Describing it as an offer, not a service, he said that nonetheless “they need to know it exists as a support tool”.

“The worst thing we can do as a country is just speak to young people when bad stuff happens,” he said. “It’s kind of too late. If you give a voice to a young person every day it’s protective, it’s preventative.”

And that preventative role is being scrutinised too. 1,500 children and young people have been spoken to as part of new joint inspections, said Helen Happer of the Care Inspectorate.

“We’re better at assessing needs than risks,” she said, and warned there remains “a huge level of weakness and mediocrity” in strategic planning.

Henderson would no doubt be pleased with such honest assessments.

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