Fifty years since the Social Work (Scotland) 1968 Act changed children’s welfare, Scotland’s Centre for Youth & Criminal Justice (CYCJ) has produced a paper calling for further radical change that is firmly based in children’s rights.
‘What is Youth Justice? Reflections on the 1968 Act’ charts the development of youth justice since the 1968 Act ushered in a national coordinated system of justice and welfare, centred around the creation of the Children’s Hearing System and based on the 1964 Kilbrandon Report. It is part of a series of papers commissioned by Social Work Scotland to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Act, launched today (5th).
Claire Lightowler, Director of CYCJ, said:
“Since Kilbrandon, change has been slow and incremental rather than radical. If Kilbrandon was the ‘big idea’ there’s not been anything to equal it since the 1960s. The paper argues that if we are to truly make the next big step change in how we respond to children who are in conflict with the law, we need to genuinely and completely root our response in children’s rights.”
Today Scotland still detains an average of 50 children in a Young Offender Institution on any one day, despite recognising this should only be done when there are no other alternatives. Such alternatives, be that intensive community support or secure care provision, are not always explored, attempted first or resourced appropriately.
Children above the age of 12 can still be prosecuted in an adult court, and although numbers proceeded against are at their lowest ever, 22 children under age 16 and 2,065 under age 18 were still prosecuted in court in 2016/2017. This is extremely concerning, given the lack of amendments to the process to take account of the fact they are children, and may struggle with comprehension due to their age, issues associated with past trauma, or due to specific speech, language or communication needs.
Just under 800 children were strip searched in police custody in the past year, and in 96% of cases nothing was found. Many schools continue to treat trauma responses in a classroom setting as deliberate bad behaviour, requiring a punishment rather than a care and support response. Children tell us their voice is often not heard, that they are misunderstood and judged without listening or understanding. Similarly, families are stigmatised and blamed whilst we ignore the circumstances of poverty, social exclusion and disadvantage we put them in.
The achievements that have been made over the past 50 years in reducing youth crime, in lower levels of public anxiety, and in a tabloid media that can be neutral (or even reflective) on the topic of youth crime, come together to support a more positive and progressive policy environment. In this way it should be possible (even straightforward) to take the radical steps needed to truly create change for children in conflict with the law, and by extension for their families, communities and society as a whole.
Claire Lightowler concluded:
“We may have some well-intentioned policies, but our research suggests that these policies are not always experienced by children and young people in the way that we want or anticipate. The pace of change is slow and meanwhile there are children we failed back in the 1960s and we continue to fail children today.
“There has been some significant progress and we have a knowledge, understanding and a culture which puts us in a position for Scotland to be a leader in our approach to troubled children again. We need to remember that children are rights holders even when they cause others harm and it becomes difficult to remember they are children and they have rights. But they are, and they do.
“If we are agreed this is the way to proceed, the next step is to articulate what does a rights-based response to children in conflict with the law look like in Scotland today, to develop a plan for how to achieve this and to implement this in full. Such an approach builds on the important work of Kilbrandon but also on international best practice. This would represent a significant leap forward and would help us deliver a child-friendly justice system that Scotland could be proud of.
“There should be no excuses. We cannot take another generation to get it right.”