Dani Garavelli: The work of the Children’s Panel

As the Children’s Panel launches a recruitment drive, Dani Garavelli witnesses its invaluable contribution to the most vulnerable

The oval table where hearings take place. Picture: Robert Perry

THE door of the hearing room edges open and a tiny girl with a mop of curly hair totters in. Dressed in a black dress and pink cardigan she smiles at the three strangers sitting at one side of a large oval table, strangers who, unbeknownst to her, have the power to make momentous decisions about her future.

On the other side are all the adults who have a role in caring for her: her grandparents, her father (who has learning difficulties and has turned up with a solicitor) and, in between them, the social worker who is tasked with keeping her safe. Tucked on one end is the reporter, whose job it is to decide which of the cases referred to the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration should go to a children’s hearing and to make sure the proceedings run smoothly.

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For the next hour, the room will be filled with conflicting accounts of Cara’s home life as she trots to and from her pink buggy, fetching juice and a packet of sweets, which she gives to her granny to open.

It’s not an easy story to listen to, although the panel of lay-people – a journalist, a stained glass artist and a retired occupational therapist, – have heard worse. Cara’s mother gave up on her long ago. Today, she lives with her grandparents, a hard-bitten, but committed couple, and has regular, supervised contact with her father who lives nearby. For a while all was going well, so well her grandparents had applied to become kinship carers. But in the past few weeks, things have started to unravel. At a hearing involving another child, it was alleged her father had a previous conviction for sexual assault (which he denies and the authorities have been unable to substantiate). There are other problems too. Her father is said to have been turning up at the grandparents’ home, shouting and screaming, and there is a suggestion that, on occasion, he has been given unsupervised access to his daughter. The stakes are high. The social worker has made it clear that if the grandparents cannot stop the father spending time alone with Cara she could be removed from their care.

But cutting through claim and counter-claim is not easy. None of the family members are articulate; they struggle to express their point of view and have to compete with Cara’s chatter. As she is too young to offer her own opinion it seems odd no-one takes her out.

But all the time the panel are watching her and asking themselves questions: Does she look well-cared for? Is she open and engaged? Does she interact with family members?

The affection she has for her grandparents is evident. Yet despite the social worker’s claim she has no bond with her father, the first thing she does when she enters the room is to climb up on his knee.

It’s a completely natural gesture which no doubt influences the panel’s decision: to continue her compulsory supervision order, allowing her to stay with her grandparents while investigations into the alleged conviction continue, but refuse the social worker’s request for contact with her father to be reduced.

“You can tell so much from body language, “ the reporter, Helen Etchells, says later. “I’m sure the panel got a lot from seeing how she [Cara] interacted with granny and grandpa. That will be critical if, at some point in the future, social work come back and say they want to accommodate her, because they [the members] would have to balance concern about contact with her father against the effect it’s going to have on her to be removed from people she obviously has a bond with. I would say the risk would have to be pretty high before you’d allow her to be taken from such a secure placement.”

Cara’s case is one of thousands handled every year by the children’s hearing system, which provides a safety net for Scotland’s most vulnerable youngsters. Set up in the wake of the Kilbrandon report into juvenile delinquency in 1968, its main role is to intervene where children are at risk from addiction, domestic violence or neglect, imposing compulsory supervision orders which may allow them to be cared for at home under specified conditions or see them removed to foster carers or children’s homes.

But whereas in other countries, including England, child protection and child criminality are handled separately, with offenders attending some form of juvenile court, the children’s hearing system also deals with young people who have broken the law, the logic being that, by and large, the most disruptive children are also the ones in greatest need of support.

It was the Kilbrandon report, too, which insisted the Children’s Panels should be comprised not of a narrow range of highly-qualified professionals, but of volunteers from the local community. This allows ordinary people to hold lawyers, social workers and teachers to account, chivvying them for long-awaited reports, and means important decisions about caring for children are being made by a broad cross-section of society.

Tomorrow, Children’s Hearings Scotland (CHS) will launch a recruitment drive for new panel members – the first since the system moved from 32 local panels to a single national body earlier this year. Through a series of adverts, some depicting a desperate child on the edge of a big, black hole, they hope to attract 500 new members from across the country to bolster the current pool of 2,700. So what kind of people are they looking for?

CHS’s chief executive Bernadette Monaghan is the first to admit that – though no formal qualifications are required – being a panel member is not a hobby. A rigorous training programme will help those committed to improving the lives of vulnerable young people develop the skills to ask hard questions and defuse potentially explosive situations, but the role requires a considerable amount of time and energy, not merely in terms of the hearings themselves, but in reading the complex and often gruelling reports.

Every year, some candidates drop out when they realise they cannot cope with the grim reality of children’s lives. For those who do persist, however, there is the reward of knowing they are making a difference.

“For me it’s quite personal. I am the product of a broken family; my father was married seven times in all, and though my grandparents were very good to me, I know how much help and support children need,” says Stephen Richard, the stained glass artist, who has been a panel member for 13 years and is chairing this morning’s hearings in a Scottish city. “But there is also the reward of getting to know a different part of the community. Without the Children’s Panel I would have never have had the sympathy I have 
now for people fighting against social deprivation.”

Before they grappled with the complexities of Cara’s domestic situation, Richard and his fellow panel members heard the case of Kieron, a four-year-old who has been in five foster homes since he was taken into care a year ago.

Kieron’s mother has repeatedly failed to turn up to contact meetings and his last placement broke down when he lashed out at his foster parent. So fragile is his mental state that he has been given permission not to attend the hearing, a rarity in a system which places so much emphasis on giving children a voice.

There is a glimmer of hope, though. Kieron’s new foster carer is full of enthusiasm about her charge. In the few weeks he has been at her home, he has started primary and the signs are he is settling well. He is bright, articulate and dresses himself, she says, and there have been no problems so far at school. Given the succession of blows he has faced in his short life, it is moving to hear her say: “I cannot imagine what [Kieron] could do to make this placement break down”. The panel agrees he should continue to live with her for the time being, though their pleasure at seeing him settled is tempered by the knowledge that if he is ever to find a permanent home, he will have to move again.

“It is great to see Kieron with someone who ‘gets’ him,” says Etchells, who had just taken up her post as a reporter when his referral landed on her desk. “He was badly neglected at home, so much so that when the social worker turned up to take him away, he skipped down the path without a backward glance – that’s a hard thing to hear. But just because a child hasn’t bonded with their mother does not mean they’ll slot into another family. One of the things I find hardest to deal with is the realisation that by the time a child is five, they can be damaged so badly that you may never be able to get them into a family home and they may spend the rest of their time to adulthood in long-term foster placements or residential care.”

The Kilbrandon report’s insistence that child protection and juvenile offending should be handled by the same tribunal was seen as radical at the time – and the only jurisdiction which has tried to replicate it since is Guernsey. Yet, ever since the children’s hearing system was introduced in 1971 it has enjoyed cross-party support, surviving even John Major’s “Tough on Crime” agenda which saw England moving in the opposite direction.

In its 42-year history, it has been has been overhauled twice. Loopholes exposed by the Orkney and Ayrshire satanic abuse scandals were tightened up in the Children’s Hearings (Scotland) 1995 Act, which made it obligatory to hold a hearing within 48 hours of a child being removed from its home on a child protection order. Then two years ago, the Scottish Parliament passed the 2011 Act, which paved the way for a national panel and made legal aid more accessible. In all that time, however, the underlying philosophy has gone largely unchallenged.

The country’s commitment to a holistic approach has less to do with its impact on rates of abuse or recidivism, which are broadly the same north and south of the Border, than a sense that it’s just more enlightened.

“The reason I support the hearings system is that it’s more appropriate to treat children in a way that recognises their vulnerability, that recognises that juvenile offending tends to be traced to the upbringing process and some sort of neglect or family breakdown,” says Professor Kenneth Norrie, author of ­Children’s Hearings in Scotland.

The way in which a troubled home life can lead children to disengage from society is perfectly illustrated by Fiona and her three children – teenagers James and Alan, and John, who is still at primary school – the last family to appear before the panel. Fiona listens passively as her social worker recounts her history of alcohol abuse and the way she goes through cycles, sometimes co-operating with social work, sometimes refusing to answer the door. Asked about the issue of domestic violence which has affected the family in the past, she tells them her partner is currently in jail. She is not drinking at the moment, she says, though occasionally she still wants to.

The problem now is that the two younger children have been playing truant, with Alan often sneaking home at lunchtime to play computer games. In skipping school, they are following in the footsteps of an older brother (not at the hearing) who rarely leaves the house. The good news is that James, who had been having some “difficulties” in the community, appears to have turned his life around. He is on a training course and is setting a good example for his younger siblings. A vision of teenage gawkiness, he blushes furiously as his progress is praised and his compulsory supervision order lifted.

It’s a positive note on which to end the session. Panel member Marilyn Harris is too experienced to let optimism blind her to the problems which may lie ahead. “I suppose it’s good,” she says cautiously, “but you do still worry about what will happen to him now.” Even so, as James, a man in the making, ruffles his younger’s brother’s hair on his way out, you cannot help but hope that he is set to rise above his shaky start and embrace a brighter future. «

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1

Some details have been changed to protect identities.