IMPROVEMENTS for children in care are being made too slowly, the Scottish Government has been told.
Over recent years “widespread efforts” have been made to improve both the decision-making process when youngsters are taken into care and the outcomes of such decisions, said Stewart Maxwell, convener of Holyrood’s Education Committee.
“The rate of improvement is still too slow, considering the amount of effort and resources committed over a long period of time,” the SNP MSP said.
“Too many children have been left for too long in unsuitable home environments. Too few children move quickly enough into stable, loving homes and go to enjoy the same life chances as other children.”
The committee carried out a major inquiry into the decision making which surrounds children in the care system.
Its investigations confirmed that youngsters taken into care do worse at school, suffer poorer health and are more likely to become homeless or commit crime than other children, he said.
“Put starkly, we consider current decision-making processes are not always delivering the best outcomes for children and their families,” he said.
“That view was heavily shaped by the children and young people we spoke to, many of whom had harrowing stories to tell.
“In Scotland we talk a lot about putting children and young people at the centre of decision making. According to the young people we met, we don’t always deliver on that promise.
“When teenagers who have been in care tell elected politicians they were left too long at home when they should have been taken into care, there is a considerable responsibility on us all to listen and respond.”
Hearings branded ‘stuffy and stressful’
The committee found that too many children believe they were left in the family home for too long and should have been taken into care earlier.
Children and young people are also unhappy with the “intimidating, stuffy and stressful” hearings system which can be used to determine whether they are taken into care, the committee report said.
Children’s Minister Aileen Campbell insisted that there is a trend for children to be taken into care earlier, “showing social workers are acting more quickly to assess and intervene”.
She said: “We believe social workers are right to take early decisions.”
There are “encouraging signs that outcomes are improving gradually” for these youngsters, with three-quarters of children in care who left school in 2011-12 going into work, training or further education within three months, Ms Campbell said.
“The Scottish Government believes every child has the right to expect the very best start in life, to be safe, to be happy and nurtured in their own families in loving and stable homes with parents with ambition and aspirations for their children,” she said.
“But there will always unfortunately be some children whose well-being depends upon alternative care. For these children, we need to make early and effective decisions to promote stability.”
Labour’s Jane Baxter welcomed measures in the Children and Young People’s Bill which will raise the age of eligibility for after-care for young people leaving care from 21 to 26.
“The permanence which we seek for children in care is not just about them having a roof over their heads,” she said.
“Stability is not just a house. It’s about having a home, friends and feeling accommodated.”
There are concerns about inconsistencies across the country with how guidelines for decision making in the care system are applied, Ms Baxter said.
“Barnardo’s has highlighted how each local authority has its own assessment process for handling risk assessment and taking children into care, which obviously impacts on the potential outcomes for children depending on where they live,” she said.
Conservative Liz Smith said it has been clear for some time that the care system is “letting down young people”.
She agreed that there are issues with the decision-making process.
“I think it is very clear now that many of the witnesses are telling us that there remain too many barriers in the way of good decision making,” she said.
“Barriers which mean that too many children are being left in unsuitable home environments; where decision making is inconsistent and very variable across the country; a system which doesn’t use resources sufficiently well enough; and there are some groups who are finding it far too difficult to have the courage of their convictions and remove the child, and I can well understand why.”