The promise: Ensuring fulfilling, happy and safe childhoods for all children is within Scotland’s grasp
The First Minister has announced that he will convene a Cabinet subcommittee for The Promise. Amid criticism that change for care-experienced young people is not happening fast enough, The Promise Scotland chief executive Fraser McKinlay says change is a collective endeavour.
The Promise Scotland, like many organisations, has not issued a public comment on the horrific murder of Amber Gibson. This is because of a long-held position of avoiding commenting on individual people's lives to make wider points about the care system. Throughout The Independent Care Review, those with experience of care were clear about the harmful and pervasive impact of stigma and the responsibility everyone has to be sensitive to how narratives are developed. The Promise Scotland is not a representative organisation with the platform or authority to speak on behalf of Scotland’s care-experienced community.
All of the work to keep the promise is grounded in the shared belief that all children in Scotland should grow up loved, safe and respected. For too many who grow up in the care of the state, this is still not the case. There is still much to be done.
It is also true that there continues to be a clear commitment and energy to keep the promise, and progress is being made. At a national level, the public bodies that provide Scotland’s unique hearing system have come together to agree radical reform. Just last week Scottish Government and Cosla fulfilled a commitment to a national foster and kinship allowance. The Children’s Care and Justice Bill will end the imprisonment of those under the age of 18. There is now a much greater national focus on keeping families together through a preventative approach that supports early help, with the flagship Whole Family Wellbeing Fund, while not perfect, providing a framework for funding.
Last year, the Promise Oversight Board, which monitors progress on how Scotland is keeping the promise, reported on the numbers of care-experienced young people who lost their life. It made a specific call for better understanding of their lives and the circumstances of their deaths. The Scottish Government now has work under way to ensure a proper understanding following the death of every child and care-experienced young person in Scotland, so that all those with responsibility can make changes and better care for children and young people.
There is lots of work in local communities across Scotland to keep care-experienced young people in school, to keep more families together and to support siblings to stay together and connected.
Many of these changes are about the system’s capacity to fulfil its role as a good parent for those who need its protection. It has been argued that, through all of this work to implement the conclusions of the Independent Care Review, there has been too much focus on the system and that the system is unable to be creative and thoughtful about transformation.
I would argue in order to make all the changes the care review demanded we must have a laser like focus on the system and its ability to do what is needed. In just over a year in my role, I have met with many children, young people and families for whom the promise is not yet a reality in their lives. And I have also met with civil servants, third sector, local authority and health board professionals and I could see their commitment. They need support to do better, so that improvements are made to children’s and families’ lives and these improvements are sustained.
We cannot simply put a price tag on what is needed to create a sustainable and irrevocably reformed care system. The idea of having a single budget for delivery of the promise, while superficially attractive, would reduce it to a project or initiative to be implemented, rather than a genuinely systemic change to how Scotland looks after its children. Instead, there must be a flexible funding framework for investment and disinvestment, a policy environment that enables, and approaches to governance that values what children and families value. To make all the changes required, and to ensure they endure beyond 2030, then those with responsibility for the system must be integral to its transformation.
Ultimately, to fulfil the ambition of the promise we must do with and not do to. Unless we enable those with responsibility to do their jobs differently and provide them with the tools to do so, Scotland will fail.
At its heart, the ambition of the promise is simple and recognisable to families across Scotland; it is the right to a good childhood. Whether that means early help and support to keep families together or childhoods full of love, care and fun for those who need to be removed for their safety. There is no poverty of ambition around the promise. Helping the system change is a job for us all. And we must all be mindful of how our language and storytelling risks stigmatising the many children and families who live and have lived in and around Scotland’s care system.
For the promise to be kept, journalists and campaigners are critical. It is their job to hold those in power to account and to continue to champion for change to come more quickly in order to make lives better. I absolutely welcome scrutiny and challenge as key elements of our collective efforts to do better. At the same time, we must all avoid the development of a narrative that change is not possible that then risks disengagement. Ensuring fulfilling, happy and safe childhoods for all children is within Scotland’s grasp. This is a collective endeavour, and we all have our part to play.
Fraser McKinlay is chief executive of The Promise Scotland