Insight: How can Scotland deliver on its promise of a better care system for young people?

National statistics detailing the numbers – and circumstances – of children in the social care system in Scotland have recently been published.

The Scottish Government simultaneously launched its plan for delivering on a suite of recommendations set out in The Promise, an initiative aiming to improve the lives of children, families and workers in and around the care system.

It sets out a list of 80 actions, with the goal of significantly reducing the number of looked after children in the country by 2030.

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Ministers have pledged at least £500 million will be spent during the current parliamentary term to help families stay together, including £50 million in the coming year.

Removing a baby from their birth family is not an easy decision. Picture: Dongxu Fang / Costfoto/Future Publishing via Getty Images

Here, experts and families discuss how can Scotland deliver on its promise of a better care system for young people.

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What is The Promise?

Scotland will “come together and love its most vulnerable children to give them the childhood they deserve”, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pledged in October 2016.

Fiona Duncan from The Promise Oversight Board. Picture: Matthew McGoldrick

She announced there would be an independent "root and branch” review of care, driven by those with first-hand experience of the system.

Named The Promise, the review – published in February 2020 – found Scotland’s care system was currently a “complex, fragmented, multi-purpose and multifaceted entity” underpinned by 44 pieces of legislation, 19 pieces of secondary legislation and three international conventions and straddles six out of nine Scottish policy areas.

It concluded Scotland did not have a “care system” but rather a labyrinth of legislation, policy and practice which did not reflect the needs of children, made “cohesive operation impossible” and “creates disconnects into which children, young adults and their families can fall”.

In its recommendations it said decisions about support must involve children and families with a focus on meeting their needs, as opposed to the system’s needs – and families should be properly supported to keep more of them together.

Jo Derrick, CEO, Staf. Picture: Contributed

Overall, it said youngsters at the heart of the system must be properly listened to.

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‘Monitoring change must include evidence

Fiona Duncan is chair of The Promise Oversight Board, responsible for monitoring progress towards keeping The Promise across Scotland.

The other day, whilst scrolling through a social media discussion about the recent adoption of a child in Glasgow, I was reminded of the saying "wisdom is the ability to hold two truths in your mind at the same time”.

On one hand, the adoption was a story of a family’s joy, of welcoming a child with the promise of love, care, and nurture. On the other, it was the removal of a baby at birth, a story of loss and profound grief.

More than one story, more than one truth.

To respect the privacy of the families involved, we shouldn’t comment further, instead focusing on the debate it ignited and what needs to be considered when thinking about change and progress.

Throughout the debate, there were references to the Independent Care Review which, in February 2020, published The Promise– a commitment to deliver lasting change in Scotland’s care system to transform the wellbeing of infants, children and young people.

Over three years, the Care Review listened to over 5,500 stories from a wide range of perspectives. Over half had lived experience of the care system, with the others offering perspectives from those who had worked in and around it. It reached its conclusions by carefully considering all these stories alongside traditional methods including data gathering and analysis.

It was the stories of children and young people’s experiences of the care system that demanded the Care Review and underpinned its conclusions.

Stories are important.

Yet often stories are not included in the lists of ‘truths’ about how things are working. Instead, the default is a reach for statistics and trends.

As reinforced by the online debate, relying on any one source will not tell the whole story.

Nor will selectively listening. It is easy to seek out and retell the story Scotland wants to hear, the one with the positive ending, told by the person who got there. Then to hold this story up as evidence of success. Similarly, it is convenient to only listen to experience at the single point when something needs to be heard.

Scotland will only know if it has kept its promise if it continues to listen. Stories and experience will tell us when the approach to care has become what it needs to be. It will be these Scotland will learn from, not just in terms of the essential and urgent day-to-day but also in improving the way progress is recorded, monitored, and reported on.

Here is why: last week, the national children’s social care statistics were released. They show an 8% decline in the number of children in Scotland’s care system since 2020, when the Care Review concluded, and Scotland promised to significantly reduce the number of children in its care system. They also show a 20% decrease in the number of children on the Child Protection Register.

Focusing solely on numbers, this could be considered a success and make for good headlines.

But, without due interrogation, including on the impact of COVID on family life, on data collection and – critically - what has happened to each child now out of the care system, Scotland cannot claim with any degree of certainty to have succeeded.

In fact, children and families’ stories of the last two years tell the complete opposite. COVID has set Scotland back and there is a lot of work to do.

The stark reality is that Scotland’s care system has created trauma heaped upon trauma. And for many the impact of trauma and poverty, felt across the care system for decades, has got worse.

We know there will always be some children who are not able to remain with their family of origin. We also know that removing a child is among the most brutal powers the state has. At times necessary, but only in the most extreme circumstances where safety cannot be guaranteed through other support and intervention.

No single statistic or trend, experience or story, can capture the complexity and nuance of the reality.

Change is hard, but when childhoods are at stake it is worth it.

Appreciating the subtlety of experience, understanding the competing realities of what real change looks like and entails is paramount.

Collecting stories alongside numbers is what is needed – putting numbers in the context of lived reality is essential. Decisions made about children’s and families’ futures must be evidence-based, and their evidence must be included.

Despite the complexity, there is hope.

Scotland has a vision for how it will do better for infants, children, young people and their families. That is to be commended. So too is the change happening every day to keep the promise and make this vision a reality. But it must include everyone.

The Promise Scotland, the organisation set up to drive and oversee the changes demanded by the Care Review, is working to embed stories as evidence and experiences as data to be used as part of monitoring progress.

There is more impetus than ever before to change the way we all think about change and progress. An essential part must start with including everyone’s story and truth.

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‘Calum is the best thing that has ever happened to us’

Parents Martin and Sarah share their experiences of adopting a looked-after child who was taken into care at birth*

We had come to the point in our lives when we were ready to start a family but it just didn’t happen.

We tried IVF, going through several rounds, and even signed up for fertility treatment abroad, which was very expensive and confusing because of language barriers. But nothing worked.

After a lot of soul-searching, we eventually decided to go down the adoption route. Giving up on having our own child was hard but we felt much more content once we had made the decision.

We were aware it can be a lengthy and difficult process, with long waiting lists of adoptive parents, so we put our names down in Scotland and in England to cast the net as wide as possible.

We had tried to prepare ourselves for what would come next but there were quite a few surprises and emotionally challenging situations ahead.

We joined an agency and went through six months of intensive training and preparation, learning the hard truths and realities of adoption and the sort of problems children may have faced in their early years.

Adoption these days is invariably due to serious social issues and children are often affected by health, developmental and emotional difficulties related to their start in life. We were very aware that we would have to enter the process with our eyes wide open.

We’ve had long discussions about how and what we want to tell Calum about his background. We want to tell him the truth as much as possible but we are very conscious about how we do that and not to paint an overly "bad” picture.

Children are taken away from their birth families for a reason, usually issues such as neglect, addiction, violence or abuse.

Our son’s birth parents were judged unable to care for him and we will explain that to him when he’s old enough to understand – that they perhaps couldn’t keep him safe, might not have looked after him well or made sure he got enough to eat.

We won’t lie to him but we will be very careful not to dramatise the story or vilify his birth family. We think that giving too harsh a truth could encourage a child to believe they’ll turn out just the same and potentially lead to personal difficulties.

In Calum’s case, although he was removed from his birth mother straight after he was born, the local social services did work with the parents in an attempt to keep the family together.

They were given access to him and shown how to care for him, change his nappy, feed him and that sort of thing. But their chaotic lifestyles got in the way and they didn’t keep up the sessions.

Eventually, when he was around a year old, the decision was made that he needed the chance to have a stable, forever home. Other members of the wider family were checked out as potential carers but he was eventually put up for adoption.

We were the lucky ones, being selected ahead of 27 other families who had said they wanted to take him on. However, officially finalising the adoption process, including court hearings and all the paperwork was stressful and took ages.

Calum had been with us for nearly six months before the process was completed, and we had to face the prospect that his birth parents could turn up in court and stop it going ahead – potentially meaning we would have to hand him back.

That was terrifying. Here we were with a child we had already fallen in love with, formed a bond with and who meant the absolute world to us and he could possibly be taken away.

Calum is the best thing that has ever happened to us. Yes, he needs to know where he came from and why he is with us, but we don't want his origins to define him.

We want him to be himself and we will support him with that in any and every way we can.

*Names changed to protect identities

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‘We cannot let our young people down – promises have been made and, together, we must ensure they are kept’

Jo Derrick, chief executive of Staf (Scottish Throughcare & Aftercare Forum)

In October 2016, the First Minister made a commitment that Scotland would “come together and love its most vulnerable children to give them the childhood they deserve”.

The subsequent commission of an independent review of Scotland’s care system, and the resulting Promise, has seen a national movement of care-experienced young people’s voices being heard.

Over 5,500 care-experienced children and adults, families and the paid and unpaid workforce informed the subsequent series of recommendations published in February 2020.

Staf is Scotland’s only national membership organisation that represents the voice of throughcare and aftercare teams across the public and 3rd sector, along with voices of young adults with care experience.

As with the Promise, we have heard that children and young people have said they want to be loved; and we have heard from the workforce how important it is to them to have the time and space to build strong and meaningful relationships with the young people they support.

We are committed to working with young people and those who support them in a coalition for change to deliver on the promise of a better care system.

The recently published children’s social work statistics 2020/2021 records a decrease in the number of infants, children and young people who are “looked after”, with an increased number ceasing to be “looked after”.

The numbers are important for giving us an overview, but most importantly is the lived experience of this journey and how the young people, and those around them, are supported to ensure any transition is undertaken in a meaningful and fully supported way.

For young people growing into adulthood this is largely about learning and preparing for life as an independent young adult.

Sadly we hear from too many young people leaving care where they experience a cliff face that is too often driven by age criteria and not enough individualised and relational-based approaches.

The statistics also highlight that although more young people have been eligible for aftercare services, in fact a reduced number were in receipt of these.

If this is about choices made by young people, then so be it. But as the Promise states, “Older care-experienced people must have a right to access to supportive, caring services for as long as they require them”.

Aftercare services are primarily intended to help people access what they need to thrive, and so it is important that any barriers to accessing these services are addressed.

As a society, we expect that parents will be there to support their child, regardless of age and whether they physically still live in their home or not.

Older care-experienced people should be able to expect no less.

It is vital that we adopt the new approach to Scotland’s care system, as outlined in the Promise, and we must learn from past mistakes in policy implementation by ensuring the system is fully resourced with a skilled and nurtured workforce; co-produced by young people and those that support them; and has relationships and trauma-informed practice at their heart.

We cannot let our young people down – promises have been made and, together, we must ensure they are kept.

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Scotland’s looked after children – in numbers

The number of children on the Child Protection Register in Scotland has fallen by 20 per cent in a year, the latest official figures have revealed.

Data published by the Scottish Government also shows Scotland continued to have the highest rate of “looked after” children of all the UK nations but numbers in 2021 dropped to their lowest levels since 2006.

A total of 13,255 were looked after in 2021, down from 14,458 a year earlier.

The figure has generally been falling north of the border over the past decade, dropping from 16,231 in 2011.

In Scotland 131 children out of every 10,000 is in care, compared to 115 per 10,000 in Wales, 80 per 10,000 in Northern Ireland and 67 per 10,000 in England.

All of the other UK countries, particularly Wales, have seen a gradual increase in the rate of looked after children.

In 2021 the number of children placed at home with parents was around half the 2011 figure, while the number placed in the community – away from home – also decreased slightly over the same period.

A child may become looked after, under the care of local authority social workers, for a number of reasons, including neglect, abuse, complex disabilities requiring specialist care or involvement in the youth justice system.

In 2021, the majority of looked after youngsters were placed in the community, including 33 per cent with members of their extended family, 34 per cent with foster carers provided or hired by local authorities, 22 per cent cared for at home and 10 per cent in residential accommodation.

The number of children being taken into care fell by 22 per cent in 2021, while the number leaving care rose by 16 per cent.

The number of children ceasing to be looked after was consistently greater than those starting to be looked after between 2013 and 2019.

However, the pattern reversed in 2020, when slightly more children entered the care system than left it.

It changed again in 2021, with substantially fewer going into care than leaving.

The Covid-19 crisis has had an impact on care services.

In April 2020, the first full month of the pandemic, there was a steep decrease in the number of children both starting and ceasing to be looked after.

By July 2020, more entered care than left it.

This pattern changed between August 2020 and July 2021, when there were consistently more children ceasing to be looked after than starting.

The length of time children were looked after showed a mixed picture in 2021.

Four per cent of youngsters leaving care had been looked after for less than six weeks – the lowest level for 18 years.

Compared with a decade earlier, a higher proportion of those leaving care had been looked after for five years or longer – up from 13 per cent in 2011 to 21 per cent in 2021.

Meanwhile, the proportion of children looked after for a shorter period of time decreased from 16 per cent in 2011 to 10 per cent in 2021.

Statistics also show a total of 2,104 youngsters were listed on the Child Protection Register in 2021 – the lowest figure since 2002.

Domestic abuse, neglect and parental mental health problems, substance use and emotional abuse were the most common reasons.

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