Key quote "The needs of children and those of their families and the communities in which they live must be addressed much earlier and ideally without a need to make a referral to the Children's Reporter" - Douglas Bulloch, Scottish Children's Reporter Administration reporter
Story in full A RECORD 54,000 troubled youngsters were investigated by the Children's Reporter last year - with "bad parents" identified for the first time as the single biggest cause of referrals.
A new report revealed 17,901 children were referred because they were suffering a lack of parental care, outstripping the 17,624 who had committed offences.
While politicians argued over the Scottish Executive's record on youth offending, child welfare experts demanded more action to identify children suffering neglect and abuse in the home.
They described the figures as alarming and called on teachers, health staff, social workers and other professionals to intervene earlier to identify and address cases of child neglect. There were also calls for more family centres and programmes to teach parents, many of whom suffered abuse and neglect as youngsters, how to look after their children.
At the same time, figures released by the Scottish Executive showed nearly 13,000 children were in local authority care - the highest number since 1986.
In 2005-6, a total of 53,883 children were referred to the Children's Reporter, more than double the number ten years ago and 6 per cent of all youngsters.
Some 40,931 children - about 4 per cent of the total child population - were referred on care and protection grounds, a rise of 179 per cent since 1996-97.
This includes more than 17,000 who were victims of crime, mostly cruelty, sexual abuse, domestic abuse or neglect. Some 17,624 were referred for committing an offence. Of these, some 1,388 were identified as being persistent young offenders.
Douglas Bulloch, chairman of the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration (SCRA), which released the report, said: "These figures need to concern us all.
"While they demonstrate there is now greater awareness of children's needs in relation to parental drug and alcohol abuse and domestic violence, it suggests that such awareness has yet to convert into appropriate early intervention and support.
"The needs of children and those of their families and the communities in which they live must be addressed much earlier and ideally without a need to make a referral to the Children's Reporter."
Hugh Mackintosh, director of the charity Barnardo's Scotland, said health, education and social work professionals, along with police, should work more closely with families to provide better support for parents who find it difficult to raise their children.
He said: "The figures certainly present a stark picture in terms of the national increase of care and protection based referrals and this has to be of concern to all agencies working with children and young people."
One of the main concerns for the SCRA is that many police forces in Scotland automatically refer children living with domestic abuse to the Reporter, when earlier contact with the family could address the problem far quicker.
Mr Mackintosh also pointed out that the areas which had the lowest referral rates on care and protection grounds - Angus, Dundee, and Perth and Kinross - were those areas where Barnardo's had co-operated closely with police to get involved with families when domestic abuse was reported.
"This model may provide valuable information as to how to tackle some of the very serious issues thrown up by the report and, with appropriate resources, can be replicated in other areas," he said.
Kelly Bayes, the head of policy at the Aberlour Child Care Trust, which runs 46 support services across the country dealing with 6,000 children, said twice as many pre-school children were being referred on care and protection grounds than was the case ten years ago.
"We need more early stages support for families and children, such as parenting classes," she said. "One of the big concerns raised is that children are being referred because their aren't any local services to address their needs."
Alcohol and drug abuse among parents was identified in the SCRA report as one of the main causes of suffering for children.
That prompted renewed calls from the country's foremost drug misuse expert for drug- addicted parents to be given the choice of coming off drugs or having their children taken into care.
Professor Neil McKegeney, who works at the Centre for Drug Misuse at the University of Glasgow, estimated that about 50,000 children were living with one or more drug-addicted parents, and he added that the number was almost certainly increasing.
"We must become much more aware of situations where children are living with drug-addicted parents," he said.
"In the vast majority of cases, children in this situation remain invisible to the authorities.
"More services and resources must be provided to help parents get off drugs. But if they refuse to take part, or say they can't, we cannot allow their children's safety to be compromised. That ultimately means taking them away."
A Scottish Executive spokeswoman said: "The trend in referrals does indicate that agencies are using the Reporter system as a way of getting children into the system and getting help.
"That's not the way the system is designed to be used.
"That's why we're reviewing the hearing system, getting it right for every child. That's about putting the emphasis on agencies working together and acting earlier to get help to children before it ever gets to the stage where they need to be referred."
Christine Grahame, the SNP's social justice spokeswoman, accused the Executive of failing to provide enough early intervention services to help needy children. She said: "For years, the relevant experts and agencies have been calling for greater early intervention to reduce the rising trend of care and protection referrals.
"However, it appears ministers have either failed to listen to that call or been unwilling to divert resources to properly enable it to happen.
"The referral figures produced by SCRA, particularly those which show a growing rise in lack of parental care cases, indicate strongly that there is a fundamental failure to provide the skills necessary to enable parents to bring up their children in a safe and nurturing environment. That is compounded by the significant pressures of poverty and deprivation made worse by seemingly out-of-control fuel costs and a lack of investment in community and support networks on the ground."
Referring to a plea from the SCRA for an extra 20million in funding - an appeal which was rejected by ministers - Mrs Grahame added: "The SCRA themselves have said that, because of the lack of funds, denied to them by Scottish ministers, they will now need to start to prioritise which cases they deal with.
"That will inevitably lead to children and their families falling through the net and, God forbid, it may ultimately lead to a tragedy."
Bernadette Docherty, the vice-president of the Association of Directors of Social Work, agreed that more resources were needed.
Ms Docherty said: "I would support the idea that agencies need to do more at an earlier stage, but that needs to be properly funded."
Ms Docherty said after-school clubs and health visits for young mothers were two examples of services which should be expanded.
53,883 are referred to Reporter in year
A TOTAL of 53,883 children were referred to the Children's Reporter in 2005-6 - the highest number yet - and some 6 per cent of all Scottish youngsters.
The SCRA annual report also reveals that:
• Some 40,930 youngsters were referred to the Reporter on care and protection grounds.
• There were 17,801 youngsters referred because of concerns about a lack of parental care, compared with 17,624 who had allegedly committed an offence.
• A total of 1,388 cases were identified as being persistent young offenders - 3 per cent of all the children referred and 0.3 per cent of all those aged between eight and 16 in Scotland.
• The most common offence in referrals was breach of the peace, cited in 12,232 cases by police. Figures show that vandalism and assault were the second and third next most frequent offences.
• In 1996-97, some 2,995 children aged up to four were referred, a total of 11 per cent of all cases.
• Over the past ten years, the proportion of pre-school children referred to the Reporter on care and protection grounds has doubled.
• The numbers of children being referred because they are victims of offences has increased by 308 per cent from 1996-97 to a total of 17,331 youngsters in 2005-6.
• Of those, 15,217 were victims of alleged cruelty.
• In 1996-97, 65 per cent of referrals were boys and 35 per cent were girls, but by 2005-6 those figures had changed to 42 per cent girls and 58 per cent boys.
• Overall, referrals to the Reporter increased by 9 per cent in 2005-6 compared with the previous year, with the total number of referrals reaching an all-time high of 97,607.
• The police were by far the most common source of referrals to the Reporter.
• Children's Hearings were heard in the cases of 6,255 youngsters referred last year. Action had already been taken in 5,881 cases.
• The SCRA employs 451 staff of which over 85 per cent are engaged in decision-making about children referred in the local network of 43 offices and hearings centres.
How the systems works
ROSS is an 18-month-old child who has been admitted to hospital with a fractured arm. He lives with both his parents, who deny any knowledge of how the injury occurred. Medical opinion is that the injury could not have happened unless it was the result of a deliberate assault.
1. Medical staff are concerned and report case to social work department
2. Social worker informs police and conducts joint interview with parents
3. Report compiled by social worker after consultation with other agencies (eg health worker)
4. Application made by social worker to the sheriff for a Child Protection Order
5. Child Protection Order granted and Ross placed in emergency foster care
6. Social worker refers Ross to Children's Reporter
7. Reporter arranges Second Working Day Hearing (Hearing required to take place within two working days of Sheriff issuing CPO)
8. Hearing continues Child Protection Order. Child Protection Order Case Conference convened for three days later
9. Reporter prepares grounds for referral for Eighth Working Day Hearing (Child Protection Order lasts only eight days from date of issue by sheriff)
10. Children's Hearing issues warrant, keeping Ross in foster care pending resolution in court as parents deny allegations
11. Matters established at sheriff court. Further warrants to keep Ross in place of safety granted. Hearing arranged to dispose of established grounds
12. Report prepared by social worker into family, relationships and situations, etc. Social worker recommends that Ross returns to his parents, subject to a Supervision Requirement. Ross also placed on Child Protection Register
13. Hearing takes place and considers social work report and the views of those at the Hearing
14. Decision of Hearing is to return Ross to his parents' care, subject to a Supervision Requirement (this has conditions attached, in this case daily visits by a social worker to monitor the situation)