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by Mandy Rhodes
17 October 2021
For the Child's Sake

For the Child's Sake

Anniversaries happen every year. That’s the way time works. They can bring joy and sadness in equal measure, reminding of times past and reflections on the present. An annual marker that underscores the fact that that was then, and this is now. 

And they show how we can all change with time. Learn. Get better. Move on.

Next year, it will be 90 years since the 1932 Children and Young Persons (Scotland) Act was passed, when the criminal age of responsibility was set at eight years old and cemented in law the fact that no child should ever be incarcerated in an adult prison.

While most of us would recognise that a child of eight is still just that, a child, it was only two years ago, and amid a surprisingly torrid debate about how low the bar should really be set to criminalise a child, that the age was raised to 12. An advance, but still placing us well behind, by at least a couple of years, countries like Russia and China whose approach to human rights could hardly be described as progressive. 

And that is an international comparator worth retaining in your head as we continue this analysis. For even now, while that derisory increase in age is on the statute books, along with the tacit reaffirmation that prison is no place for a child, both have still to be fully realised in practice. 

Rhetoric doesn’t always match reality in Scotland and the same applies to promises made over the education attainment gap, of child poverty, of the right to a permanent home, to food, to mental health provision, to love.

And talking of which, it is the fifth anniversary of the First Minister’s pledge to SNP conference of a ‘root and branch’ review of the care system. A review which, she promised, would put love at its heart.  

And little wonder. Despite more than 20 years of devolution and with our own parliament and powers, on any metrics for education, health, justice and even death, care-experienced children feature so heavily at the wrong end of what could ever be judged successful. 

The statistics are as horrifying as the real-life stories that lie behind them, and that is why the First Minister was moved almost to tears when she told delegates in October 2016, “something has to change.”

Five years on, it is reasonable to ask whether anything has.

The first anniversary of the findings of that Independent Care Review has now passed. And it concluded with what was optimistically called ‘The Promise’ which, among other lofty aspirations for how ‘care’ should change, contained a commitment that no child should be held in a young offender institution. Today there remain almost twenty – all under 17. 

This month is also the third anniversary of the death of 16-year-old William Lindsay, who took his own life just 72-hours after being placed on remand in Polmont Young Offenders Institution. 

William, undeniably, had complex issues. He had been in and out of care, had a history of attempting suicide, of self-harm and of violence. He had been in trouble with the police and his family problems ran generations deep. William was your classic social work casebook example of how and where young lives can and do go wrong.

He may have been deemed violent, he had a knife and had threatened assault, but he was also very vulnerable. A known suicide risk. A child whose care workers wanted him placed in a secure unit designed for children, not in a prison designed for adults.

But that day, like many days before and since there were no available spaces in a suitable secure unit – some places having already been auctioned off to the English care sector. He was sent on remand to Polmont instead. He hanged himself 72 hours later. He was the fourth young inmate to kill themselves inside Polmont within the space of a year.

Has anything changed? Has it what? 

Three years on from William’s death, there are almost 20 teenagers in Polmont on remand. A total of 120 over the course of a year. Most of them with damaged backgrounds, with complex mental health issues, who score high on the ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences)  score card, and almost all unable to properly comprehend or navigate the court process that they found themselves in, unsupported by social workers who often only discovered that the child they were charged with caring for, was due in court, just hours before they were scheduled to appear. 

In a confidential report seen by Holyrood on this group of troubled teens, the fact that so little has been learnt or changed since the tragic death of William, is laid bare. 

That’s the outrage.

So, when the First Minister, in the same week that the memory of William was being mourned by so many, reacted with such disproportionate fury when the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court, ruled that the Scottish Parliament had breached its legal powers by attempting to incorporate into Scots law the statutes within the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, by saying that this left her unable to fully protect children’s rights, would it not have been wiser to have reflected on how Scottish children are currently left unprotected by the powers she already has?

The fact is, the Scottish Government knew it was attempting to legislate in breach of the Scotland Act; knew it, but did it anyway. And it is difficult to see how this was anything other than a cynical exercise in creating a grievance for advancing both an argument about the Tories being anti-children, and the case for more powers. And for independence.

We can forgive politicians playing politics with the opposition - that’s what we have become accustomed to expect - but to play the children’s sector for fools, to draw them into a game of constitutional ‘gotcha’ and to make children the collateral damage along the way, is surely an unforgivable breach of trust.

It will now be up to the Scottish Government to either amend and resubmit the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill, and own its mistake, or leave it potentially to the Scottish wing of the party running arguably one of the most regressive UK governments in modern times in terms of human rights, to propose a new amended bill forcing the SNP to have to vote for what should have been one of their own landmark pieces of legislation but claimed by the Tories.

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Read the most recent article written by Mandy Rhodes - Support act: An interview with Jackie Baillie

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