Place of Safety for Children and Young People in Conflict with the Law: Event Report

Event Overview

On November 16th, 2023 the Children and Young People’s Centre for Justice (CYCJ) and Social Work Scotland hosted the second national event in a series exploring alternatives to the use of Police Custody for children in conflict with the law. The event sought to explore how the Place of Safety (PoS) model is currently used and how we can learn from wider rights-respecting approaches like Bairns’ Hoose. 

The event was attended by over 70 professionals representing a diverse range of specialisms across the justice and care sectors including public bodies, academics and the third sector. The event included inputs from a range of experts including those with lived experience, before attendees engaged in four discussions. Participation and Policy Lead Carly Elliott-Scott shares this post-event report. 

Summary of discussion

Discussion 1: What is the current practice in your local area in respect of providing children and young people with a place of safety? Is the practice different depending on whether it is a child protection concern or children in conflict with the law?

Many reported noticing a change in behaviour locally, with increased use of alternative measures for lower tariff offences such as the use of undertakings especially for those under 16 and the use of curfew conditions. However, attendees also noted how difficult it can be to manage curfews and the potential implications for children if they breach conditions.

Most groups reflected on the changing societal perceptions of children in conflict with the law noting a regression in media representation and therefore a perceived reduction in understanding from the public. In terms of professional knowledge and attitude, some spoke about a greater recognition of the link between trauma and behaviour, particularly by education professionals and police. Conversely, several groups reflected that the professionals around the child may adopt different opinions on what route to take. This was often cited as a difference in opinion between social workers and police, but also between criminal justice social workers and those on out of hours duty.

More specifically on the use of PoS, while attendees reflected positively about the need for alternatives to custody especially in using wider family networks, they also identified the practical challenges in implementing alternatives. Reflections included the belief that it is easier to help divert a child from being held in police cells during the working day, with social workers not always alerted to the child’s situation out of hours.

Discussion 2: What are your thoughts on the presentations so far? If resources were no barrier, what solutions would you be developing locally? Which partners would need to be involved? Is there shared ownership of this agenda among children’s services partners locally? How do we go about building collective responsibility?

Many groups reflected positively on the presentations, noting it felt heartening to hear appetite for change particularly within Police Scotland. That said, there was general agreement that this is not what is being seen day to day, suggesting this vision is taking time to filter throughout Police Scotland. Some also noted how powerful they felt it was to view the real experience of police cells and suggested such videos be used to change wider perceptions.

If resources were no barrier, attendees identified investment in many existing evidence-based frameworks/approaches including:

  • Diversion and de-escalation of a trajectory through the justice system through Early and Effective Intervention and Whole Systems Approach.
  • Investment in youth work, wraparound and intensive services to prevent children from coming into contact with the police generally
  • More community Police Officers who work with the community
  • Better connection and relationships to a fully equipped out of hours social work team
  • Greater training on working with trauma-response behaviours and neurodiversity for wide range of professionals
  • Greater investment in the workforce to help recruitment and retention
  • Trauma-informed lawyers following children from CHS to adult system
  • Upskill police and other professionals to support children in moments of distress rather than lean on mental health teams or CAMHS
  • Review the Lord Advocate Guidelines on Offences Committed by Children to help move away from a risk-averse culture.

Specific to Place of Safety design, attendees identified:

  • Replicate or use Bairns’ Hoose for the needs of this community
  • Therapeutic environment is needed for all children
  • Possibility of using SCRA offices, hospitals or secure accommodation
  • Use of youth courts in every local authority with the resource to support from point of arrest
  • Provision of staff to stay with child wherever they live until process complete
  • PoS would be safe for both children and adults (thinking about CCE and County Lines)
  • Repurpose existing buildings and protect safe spaces for children to stay overnight with designated staff
  • Grow family/friend networks for children that can be used as PoS, with appropriate financial and practical support
  • A standalone building in close proximity to police station
  • Move child to therapeutic environment after interview takes place
  • National vision, standards and accountability for delivery, but local variations to account for local need with understanding of cultural issues/needs.

Generally, there was a feeling that this issue is not viewed as a collective responsibility with enough services. Groups suggested that discussions about solutions must extend beyond police and social work, with the third sector and health services most named. That said, some also reflected that requests for mental health assessments while a child is in custody can cause delay, increase time spent in cells and ultimately may not be the correct response for a child in distress.

Discussion 3: Do you agree with the current position, re: Place of Safety, for the Bairns’ Hoose? How do we mirror the Bairns’ Hoose model to reduce trauma for children who come into conflict with the law? What can we learn from international practice?

Attendees were mixed in their reflections about the use of Bairns’ Hoose for all children but generally agreed that it could be appropriate for some children in conflict with the law, but that a version of the model should be developed for all children. For many, a national approach for children in conflict with the law should be first outlined, with space to develop local implementation. In such discussions, many agreed that the Bairns’ Hoose model should be adapted with suggestions including:

  • Unlike Bairns’ Hoose, PoS environments need to have residential element however this incurs a risk of beds being used for other emergency placements
  • Must be available 24 hours and staffed appropriately with a multi-agency approach
  • Potential that Bairns’ Hoose is only used for children with the most distressed behaviours, , focusing on diversionary measures for everyone else
  • Analysis of existing data and evidence to help design a bespoke version of Bairns’ Hoose/PoS
  • A review of legislation and guidance to help design a model that is about the child and less about process, while also ensuring the child’s rights are upheld e.g. reading of rights can only take place in police station
  • Courts sitting at weekends to reduce time in custody
  • Change purpose of secure care and use as a PoS
  • Design could consider stage of development rather than age, allowing for individualised response
  • Possibility of a ‘mobile Bairns’ Hoose’ travelling to the child
  • Work with families to design individual solutions that can include them
  • Carers identified to provide PoS as a short-term break.

International reflections:

  • PoS does not always have to be a physical space
  • Melbourne introduced model where social work were based alongside police to manage such situations in tandem
  • Learn from Australia’s example of culturally individualised PoS.

Discussion 4: Good practice within your Local Authority/area? What allowances should we give for variations across Local Authorities? How do we ensure that children and young people are a part of the solution?

There was agreement that there should be a national approach developed outlining the core components of PoS/alternative Bairns’ Hoose, but with support to implement locally, recognising the different shape of local authorities and the resource available. Rural communities e.g. Highlands and Islands were cited as needing careful consideration.

Strong local practice examples include:

  • Reach, Perth & Kinross
  • London Road police station
  • South Lanarkshire pilot
  • Seymore House, Dundee
  • Alloway Centre, Glasgow
  • Simon Community Hub

When thinking about how to include children and young people, there was a mix of responses focusing on individual and collective participation, as well as a call to ensure families and carers are heard too.

In individual situations, it was recommended that police and social work engage with the child and their family to determine the best response in that moment. Collective models of participation reflected on the success of local Champions Board models ensuring children and young people can discuss local practice and design solutions with professionals. Others spoke about the role of young people in events like this or wider engagement programmes.

Key findings:

  1. A need to invest in and focus on EEI and diversion to reduce the need of PoS
  2. Invest in professionals with a focus on trauma and supporting children in distress
  3. Replicate the Bairns’ Hoose model focusing on how it can be adapted/or used currently to meet the needs of children in conflict with the law
  4. Create national standards and then support flexible implementation locally
  5. Embody participation throughout design and delivery of new model, both individually and collectively.


About the Author

Carly Elliott-Scott is CYCJ’s Participatioin and Policy Lead.

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