Keeping The Promise

In February 2020, Scotland’s Independent Care Review shared its findings. At its heart was The Promise, a commitment towards building the care system on a foundation of stable, nurturing and loving relationships. In the first of a four part blog series, CYCJ’s Ross Gibson considers what must happen next to ensure The Promise becomes a reality.

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy that seems a million miles from now The Independent Care Review published their principal report – The Promise – marking the culmination of countless hours of work by children, young people, family members, professionals and many others.

Sprinkled through its 124 pages are over 80 ‘conclusions’ which set out what must be done in order that Scotland is the best place in the world for children to grow up. These conclusions are as diverse as the population it relates to, with broad macro-level issues alongside those that are more specific. Whilst COVID-19 and the risk of a crippling recession have become priorities in the weeks since the review published their seven reports, the blueprint set out is bound to have a significant impact upon the way Scotland’s babies, infants, children and young people are cared for. I’m not exactly sure how this will come to be, however the appointment of Fiona Duncan to chair the oversight body which will drive the implementation of The Promise will ensure consistency and continued commitment to a child-centred process. Whilst The Promise outlined the ‘what’, Fiona and her team will now need to identify the ‘how’. Having myself been involved in the Justice and Care work group of The Review, I have some speculative thoughts on where the next stage of this journey might lead us.

At the macro level, I was delighted to see a call for a “significant, ongoing and persistent commitment to ending poverty and mitigating its impacts for Scotland’s children, families and communities” (The Promise, 2020; 18). The importance of this is manifest; heightened levels of deprivation and poverty often “constitute a normative backdrop, something unremarkable and unremarked upon” (Morris et al., 2018:367) and its corrosive effects seemingly damaging every aspect of life, and at each stage of life. Indeed, our Children and Young Person’s Commissioner has often stated that poverty is the biggest human rights issue encountered by children in Scotland. But economic forecasts are particularly gloomy, and the financial arsenal required may not be (made) available post pandemic. The work of Katherine Trebeck within The Money and Follow the Money is therefore more prescient than ever, calling for early intervention and preventative spending. I am of the view that underlying much of a child’s conflict with the law is socio-economic disadvantage, and a move towards the economic landscape suggested in these reports could go some way towards addressing the factors which lead to conflict with the law, and redistributing wealth fairly.

The Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility was highlighted by The Review as an area requiring further attention, stating that Scotland must align itself with the most progressive international standards. I think this is a tacit acknowledgement of the United Nation’s call for a minimum age of 14, rather than 12, which led to criticism from Scotland’s Children and Young People’s Commissioner. I wish The Review had come out more strongly and boldly on this, and hope that the next stage may see Scotland take an international lead on this particular subject.

The Review advocated that the current Children’s Hearing model should “shrink and specialise” (The Promise, 2020; 44). At the same time, The Review calls on the adoption of an approach that provides early intervention. For children who come into conflict with the law, I think this may lead to greater use of Early and Effective Intervention as a response to a greater range of behaviours, whilst developing the expertise and knowledge of panel members to deal with those occasions with children who face, take or make the greatest risk of harm.

I was pleased that The Review acknowledged the over representation of children with experience of the care system within the justice systems, and I know that the work of Moodie and Nolan (2016) was really important during our discussions in the workgroup. The Review calls on the workforce and care system to respond to children’s behaviours in a manner that is “relational rather than procedural and process driven” (The Promise, 2020: 91), acknowledging that these responses often drive the criminalisation of children. I hope that this will see further roll out of the pilot scheme that has been operating in Dumfries and Galloway for the past few months

Another reason identified is the use of criminal courts to respond to children who have come into conflict with the law. The Review concludes that the vast majority of criminal matters ought to be dealt with by the Children’s Hearing System, perhaps reflecting research which demonstrates the large number of children who continue to appear in Scotland’s courts (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, 2018, McEwan, 2020). The Promise calls on greater use of remittal to the Children’s Hearing, and for greater use of that forum rather than court proceedings. The ‘shrinking and specialisation’ therefore seems a little at odds with a forum that will be expected to respond to more serious offences and more complex matters, so it will be interesting to see how details of that are reached in the coming months.

The Review also reached conclusions about secure care including the need for that setting to provide therapeutic care rather than mere containment, an acknowledgement of the additional needs that children placed within secure care often present with, and a move towards the use of secure care rather than a Young Offenders’ Institute. Hopefully this final point could see an increase in the use of secure care for those children who are remanded or sentenced by court; in February and March 2020, an average of 21 children were held within HMP YOI Polmont. The Review concluded that when it is necessary to deprive a child of their liberty it must take place only when alternative measures have been explored, and for “the shortest time possible, and in small, secure, safe and trauma-informed environments” (The Promise, 2020: 91). As has been the case in recent years, I imagine this will lead to greater embedding and incorporation of trauma-informed responses to children in secure care, and I hope in community settings too.

I am mindful of factors that resulted in a growth in cross border placements, and the risk of no capacity being available at the time it is needed. In light of this, The Review’s conclusion that “the planning and provision of Secure Care must reflect the needs of children in Scotland to ensure there are sufficient places for those that need them” (The Promise, 2020: 82) is really interesting. Secure placements by authorities outwith Scotland continues (Secure Care Strategic Board, 2019, Scottish Government, 2019), with existing funding models requiring a certain level of occupancy in order to achieve financial stability. I wonder if the desire to provide sufficient capacity across the secure sector may continue to prove challenging, without a fundamental change in the way secure care is funded.

This – and other conundrums – are issues that the implementation group will be required to flesh out in order to ensure that The Promise becomes the reality.

About our blogger

Ross Gibson is Practice Development Advisor for CYCJ. His focus of work includes young people’s participation in youth justice services, community alternatives to custody and secure care, youth justice input within higher and further education and identifying examples of creative practice.

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