Dani Garavelli: Playing happy families with despair

Whenever I write in partial defence of the Named Person policy, I receive tweets complaining about the way in which the government has 'deliberately conflated' the issues of well-being and child protection.

The family can be a stifling environment for young people suffering stress or depression. Picture: iStockphoto/Getty

What these critics are expressing is a belief that the SNP sold the idea on the basis it would save the lives of vulnerable children like Caleb Ness or Declan Hainey, then moved the goalposts until it was more about trying to secure health and happiness for all.

Up to a point, they are right. There has been, as I have discussed before, a failure to adequately explain the role of the NP and to address concerns that the criteria being used to measure “well-being” are nebulous. On top of this, there is the issue of the lowering of the threshold for information sharing which led the Supreme Court to rule Part 4 of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 unlawful.

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What I fail to understand, however, is the way some people baulk at the very idea the government should have a role in monitoring the “well-being” of its youngest citizens. Unless children are imminently “at risk”, they imply, the state should butt right out of their lives.

Subscribing to the “it-takes-a-village-to-raise-a-child” philosophy, I find this an odd position. Though threats to “well-being” may fall far short of the problems that would put a child in physical danger, a state of comfort and security for Scotland’s young people is surely something we should aspire to.

What starts as a “well-being” issue may – left unaddressed – escalate to a point where child protection measures are required, hence the government’s emphasis on early intervention; and a child who is anxious may be more vulnerable to abuse inside or outside the home. At a time when we appear to be in the grip of a mental health crisis, wouldn’t any good government be looking at what it could do to help teenagers cope with their anxieties?

Last week, the importance of checking on children’s “well-being” was dramatically underlined by the NSPCC. On the day education secretary John Swinney took flak for reiterating his commitment to the Named Person policy (which he now hopes to introduce in August 2017) the charity revealed that, in 2015, 934 children in Scotland rang its ChildLine service to say they had suicidal thoughts. That’s 934 children so desperate they struggled to envisage a future; 934 children who – driven to the brink by a turbulent home life, abuse or mental health problems – sought solace from a stranger.

Throughout this controversy, I have been disturbed by the NO2NP campaign’s complacency and its defensiveness; the way it holds up the institution of the family as a sacred ideal and acts as if the Scottish Government is on a mission to destroy it. Its insistence that non-neglectful/non-abusive parents are almost always in the best position to assess their children’s needs seems to me to underestimate the complex and often fractious dynamics of domestic units and the many competing pressures of modern life. Its insistence on focusing only on children “at risk” ignores the fact that any family can suddenly be destabilised by bereavement, redundancy or illness, or by a combination of less apparently traumatic events: an excessive workload, a fraying marriage and a child struggling to settle in school, for example.

Under pressure, even the most loving home can become a claustrophobic nightmare in which each member cleaves to his or her own misery, fearful of adding to the others’ burdens. It is not unusual for children to believe they can alleviate their parents’ worries by suppressing their own.

Equally, if, as a parent, you are struggling to keep your head above water, it is easy to miss early signs of trouble (a change in eating habits, a class missed here or there, the odd bout of underage drinking). Those caught at the centre of an ongoing crisis or trapped in a cycle of negative behaviour can find it difficult to disentangle the many factors that contributed to it or to chart a way out.

It is neither an admission of personal failure nor an indictment of the institution of the family to concede that outsiders are sometimes better placed to offer an objective assessment of a situation or that children can benefit from talking to people with no emotional stake in their plight.

What is clear from ChildLine and other children’s charities is that hundreds of young people – many of them, doubtless, from “good” families – crave outside input. Whether their problems involve cyberbullying, a failed love affair or an eating disorder, they are desperate for someone – anyone – outside their intimate circle to talk to. In an ideal world, of course, they would have had that opportunity long before they were thinking about taking their own lives.

In this context – and the wider crisis in mental health in Scotland – the whole “totalitarian state snooper” argument over Named Persons seems fatuous. A more pertinent line of attack is the one Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale took last week when she pointed out that 608 young Scots had waited more than a year to get help from CAMHS (the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service), while a further 9,000 were turned away despite having been referred.

One of the principal roles of the Named Person is to help children and parents access the services they need, but they can’t do that if those services don’t exist or are oversubscribed. Last week, in response to Dugdale’s criticisms, Nicola Sturgeon agreed to consider an £8 million Scottish Labour plan to guarantee every secondary school in Scotland access to a qualified counsellor.

Announcing the delay in the Named Person provision, Swinney promised to hold an intense three-month consultation on how to make the scheme comply with European Human Rights law. But he should also use the time to ensure enough resources are in place to guarantee its effectiveness across the country. If he doesn’t, all the political damage the SNP has endured in pursuit of this policy, will have been for naught.