Issue 12

THE BOLD REFORMS NEEDED TO PROTECT THE MOST VULNERABLE

By Lucy Morton, Glasgow Service Centre Manager, Lucy Morton NSPCC Scotland

It is often said that a mark of society is how it treats its most vulnerable. For nearly 50 years our justice system has been lauded for recognising that the needs and welfare of children are paramount.

But times have changed since 1968. So in the run up to the 2016 Holyrood elections we, at NSPCC Scotland, are asking politicians of all parties to commit to three bold changes to ensure our justice systems protect and deliver justice for children today.

Reform the Children’s Hearings System

Developed as an alternative to court, our Children’s Hearing System is rooted in the principle that children who commit offences and children who need care and protection are often the same and should be dealt with in the same system. The Hearing System is founded on the strongest principles which we at the NSPCC fully support. But through our experience of working with young children in Glasgow who have been abused and/or neglected by their parents we are becoming concerned that the system is failing the very children it was set up to protect.

Today, the vast majority of children and young people are referred to the Children’s Reporter on care and protection grounds rather than offence grounds. Over 90% (17, 476) of children referred to the reporter in 2013/14 were referred on care and protection grounds. Cases coming before the Hearings System’s lay panel members are becoming increasingly complex. And the recent introduction of Legal Aid for parents of children attending hearings has compounded things. Legal representation has been a feature of some complex cases for some time but, since the introduction of Legal Aid we have felt a significant rise in delays in procedural activity and an increase in appeals to decisions via the Sherriff. Hearings seem to feel increasingly adversarial and litigious to all the parties who are involved in them. As legal professionals advocate for parents, the interests of the unrepresented child can be compromised.

Today, the vast majority of children and young people are referred to the Children’s Reporter on care and protection grounds rather than offence grounds.

It is accepted that, if possible, child witnesses should not appear in person in court. Yet the Children’s Hearing System is based on the opposite premise. Of course, children should be able to participate in decisions about their future. But participation in confusing and stressful meetings at which their abuser may be present can intensify the emotional damage that has already wreaked havoc in a young child’s life. Children may be too young or too terrified to make sense of questions from strangers. And unlike court where child witnesses can no longer be cross-examined, the Hearings System allows children to be questioned by somebody who is accused of harming them.

Where some have suggested that professionalising Children’s Hearing panels would resolve these issues, we at the NSPCC want to ensure a range of options are considered in order to better protect young children’s rights. Improved and better focused advocacy may be one strategy that would help. Even the very youngest babies can express themselves through complex attachment behaviours. Introducing infant advocates, potentially independent professionals with robust training in observation skills, child development and infant mental health, might ensure that young children can better influence decisions about their future.

Spare children further suffering in court proceedings

Where child witnesses do have to take part in court proceedings our justice system can add trauma to their earlier experiences of abuse. A recent report from the Scottish Courts Service recognises that: “In recent decades the number of child and vulnerable witnesses being called to give evidence has increased dramatically. They have, however, been introduced into a system that was ill-equipped to accommodate them, with the result that there have been a series of adjustments to the law and practice that at best only partially address their needs.”

Cases of sexual abuse, in particular, will often rely on a child’s testimony. As the abuse will be carried out in secrecy, there are usually no witnesses or hard evidence. For a child who is terrified by their abuser, scared of not being believed and possibly even feeling to blame it can be extremely hard to disclose sexual abuse. Subsequent investigatory procedures and court hearings can trigger stressful memories, in effect re-victimising the child.

Across Scandinavia, Barnehus or Barnahuset centres reduce the trauma of investigatory and criminal justice proceedings for child abuse victims and help children to access therapeutic support more quickly. A child will be supported by a multi-professional team including a criminal investigator and prosecutor, health expert, senior social worker, judicial counsellor and forensic expert. Together the team help the child work through possible trauma and support them through official procedures to reduce long-term traumatisation. Medical support is instantly accessible during witness interviews to make the experience less traumatic.

By borrowing from Scandinavian models to reform support for vulnerable child witnesses the next Scottish Government can free abused children from further suffering.

Where child witnesses do have to take part in court proceedings our justice system can add trauma to their earlier experiences of abuse

Take action for babies in the criminal justice system

For some of Scotland’s most vulnerable children life begins in the criminal justice system. We estimate that between 3,400-4,600 babies in Scotland under the age of two are affected by parental imprisonment every year.

At this time of major developmental significance separation from a parent or physical incarceration of pregnant women and babies can have long term adverse effects on a baby’s physical, social and emotional development. Yet pregnancy and birth can motivate people to make big changes in their lives. Intervening at what is a crucial time for both parent and baby can improve outcomes for the most disadvantaged children and discourage parents from further offending.

By developing a National Action plan for babies affected by the criminal justice system the next Scottish Government can provide proactive preventative help to children and parents with the greatest needs.

If politicians want Scotland to be the best place for all children to grow up, our child protection and criminal justice system need to get it right when things go wrong for a child. By reforming the Hearings System, strengthening supports for child witnesses and caring for babies in the criminal justice system our politicians can protect and ensure justice for our most vulnerable children.

Lucy Morton is the NSPCC Scotland Glasgow Service Centre Manager

By Lucy Morton, Glasgow Service Centre Manager, Lucy Morton NSPCC Scotland

Issue 12

PREVIOUS ISSUES

Looking for a previous issue? Use the menu below to select an issue.