Sunday, 12 June 2011

A Childrens Hearing.

Hullo ma wee blog,

 Unfortunately not every child gets the safe, secure and nuturing upbringing they deserve. Too many are raised in chaotic conditions where abject poverty, neglect and addiction  are the norm, leaving children at risk for their welfare, their future and sometimes their very lives. This is a post about Children's Panels which are lay tribunals set up under Scots Law to hear cases for the protection, care, guidance and treatment of children at risk between birth  and age of 16. {or 18 in some cases.} This process which puts the child's interests before all else is unique and  has been a worthy feature of the Scottish legal system for many years.


On the day of a Children's Hearing, the three of us making up a panel - always a mix of sexes to prevent any kind of all male/female bias creeping in - get together beforehand to have a short pre-hearing meeting to discuss the information contained in the reports that have been provided. These will be at the least - unless it's an emergency hearing called at short notice - a social work compiled child and family background report and a school report but could also include reports from health visitors, specialist medical practitioners, residential homes reports or any other agencies that the child or family are involved with. The families attending will also get copies of the reports involving them at the same time. Any serious compromising of the length of time to consider reports, especially if it compromises the families right to have ample time to consider and potentially to seek legal advice, would almost certainly ensure that we would decide only to 'continue' - postpone until another date could be arranged - so the families rights would not be infringed. {a sure-fire winner at any appeal} The sometimes hefty reports the panel have access to are provided seven days before the hearing to allow us to read and absorb the information and consider elements of risk relating to the child's situation and potential next steps that need to be taken to improve or remove the risks to the child. These measures, if we decide to put any in place after a discussion of the case with those involved at hearing, are legally binding on the child and supporting local council authority and can include conditions dictating an action that should be taken by the child or by any of the professionals who are supporting, such as varying where and how the child should be educated, where and with whom the child should live, who, how often and under what protective circumstances the child should have contact with and what treatment, controls, support or guidance should be provided. This effectively means that there are a wide range of measures that can be put in place to protect a child who is at risk either from their own actions or the actions {or neglect} of others. Normally we will hear three cases in a sitting with each of the cases allocated an hour for discussion and during the sitting each of us will chair a pre-allocated case unless one or more of the members has not had the separate formal training to chair tribunals. If this is the case the trained members will chair more than one case ensuring that due process is followed and writing up the formal record of decisions and the reasons which are given to the child and other relevant persons { normally the parents and local authority professionals but can include others such as foster carers etc}  used by following panels in future reviews of the case and in the event of an appeal being made against the panel's decision - any appeal would be heard at court and not by another panel. The reasons written therefore have to clarify the consideration of risk by the panel and the thought process used to come to the final decision and explaining why the panel consider this to be in the child's best interests.


The family enters to take their seats from the waiting area along with the professionals attending. The professionals at a hearing are normally Social Work and School as a minimum but could include many others such as Lawyers, Health Workers, Family Support Workers, Foster Carers or representatives from Secure Facilities. This is the first time the child and family has been called to a hearing. The child is a boy of about 9 years old and he sits beside his mother, head down. Father isn't in attendance even though he should be but I know we'll deal with that in a moment. Opposite the family and professionals, across an oval beechwood table sits the three person panel that makes up the tribunal that is a Children's Hearing. Today there are two men and one woman. I'll chair the hearing for this case. During the session there will be three cases and although each is scheduled for an hour this is flexible based on needs and circumstances - we take the time needed for the family -  and this is the first case of the day. Each of us will chair a case as we are all experienced members, trained to fulfill the procedural and legal obligations chairing a hearing brings. The room is bright and airy, the decor subdued pastel and there are framed paintings done by young children on the wall; a child on a chute; a child in a swimming pool or sea wearing a rubber ring; an unidentifiable animal or bird in garish colours. In the corner there is a small table with a box of crayons and some sheets of paper to draw on, a book and some stuffed animals. There's always a box or two of tissues around within reach of an emotional child or adult.

 As the kerfuffle of a group of people coming in and taking a seat takes place I try to observe the child without making it too obvious. He is small for his age and as he sits back in the chair his feet barely touch the floor. His head is still down and his body language is very closed. His hands are clasped in his lap and he has made a hand wringing gesture twice when he did sneak a glance around him. Even though he's done this he hasn't looked in the direction of us in the panel sitting across from him. He takes a deep breath and blows it out through pursed lips. He looks what he is. A stressed and scared wee boy.

I call his name gently across to him and when I have his attention I smile and ask how he's feeling. I get a  fairly blank look in return for a second and he looks to his Mum who is still getting herself sorted out.

"Hello ****** you must be feeling pretty scared just now. After all this is the first time you've been to see us at a hearing....."

I now have his full attention but he's not about to say anything just yet.

"Has anyone spoken to you about coming to see us and what happens at a children's panel?"

I got a head shake in response, but he also says " A bit."

"You've got to find this all a bit scary, coming into a room full of strangers,especially if no-one's explained about what happens in a hearing to you."

He's still staring at me.

"How would it be if I told you a wee bit about it while everyone's getting sorted out. Would that be ok?"

I get a nod and he leans forward a bit.

"Well first of all I bet you've heard from pals at school that a hearing is where boys and girls get sent if they've been bad.  Maybe you were told too that a hearing will decide you are to be taken away from your Mum or Dad and sent away to live somewhere else."

His eyes are huge and there is a tremble in his lip. He wrings his hands.

"Well you're not here because you've been bad, so don't worry about that. That's not the only reason that children come to see us here.  Don't worry either that anyone's going to take you away from your Mum and Dad, OK?. That's not going to happen. We would only take a boy or girl away from their Mum or Dad if we had to because it really wasn't safe for them to be at home and that doesn't happen very often. {A white lie - it's reasonably common for us to see children who simply aren't safe at home, but  he doesn't need to know that and this isn't one of those situations}  We're people who think children are very important but we know that at times, things might happen that can upset or worry you and sometimes things happen to children that make them feel unsafe and scared. Sometimes things happen, and people - even Mums and Dads - don't know what to do to make things better. If we hear about someone where this is maybe happening we ask them to come and talk to us to see if there's anything we can do to help make things better so that you're not worried or scared anymore.  A hearing is just is a meeting to talk about what's happening and to help decide what needs to be done to help you and who would be best able to do that. So it's not just boys or girls that have been bad that come here.

While we're having the chat about things it's my job to make sure we talk about everything we need to so I will ask different people to speak and I will probably ask lots of questions. If you feel you can talk to us about anything then you'll be able to tell me what it is. I'm also here to make sure that you understand what's being said and you get a chance to talk if you want to. After we've all had a talk me and my two colleagues will say what we think would be the best thing to happen, then I'll explain what this will mean. Before you go away today I'll make sure you know what's going to happen next and why we think this is the best thing to do. Are you OK with that?"

He nods.

"Do you feel a bit better now?"

He nods and I get a glimmer of a smile.

"That's good. Let's get everyone started then will we?  I'll watch out to make sure you're OK when everyone's talking."

I sit back a bit.

"Now then ladies and gents. Thanks for coming to the hearing today for ******. First let me introduce the panel and then I'll ask each of you to introduce yourselves before we begin......."

See you later.

Watching this.


Nicky said...

Another great and insightful commentary Alistair. Infirmation that most of us would never be privy to. Thanks for sharing and enlightening us.

Alistair said...

Glad you like it Nicky. I've had a few comments about panels and thought it would be nice to let people see a bit more.....

Rebecca S. said...

I've finally managed to get to this blog post, and am thankful to you for writing it. The descriptive part about what you do as a chair was particularly insightful. The process seems a good one, and not very different from the Swedish one (if reading those Girl with the Dragon Tattoo novels is any indication!) Here we have the ministry of children and families, which do a similar job, but not with the help of an independant board. That would probably be a very good thing to adopt in our country. There are two foster homes within two houses of us.

Morning's Minion said...

Interesting and sober stuff.
Could you do a follow-up sometime and deal with the success rate [for want of a better term] which you feel is accomplished through these hearings.

Alistair said...

Rebecca - Although Scotland was 1st with this method of dealing with children, others have brought in similar proceedures like you say here. It can work, but sometimes I wish we had more teeth. It would be great to be able to compell the adults around a child to do certain things sometimes. {Although lack of progress on a certain 'advised' course of can be evidinced as a maintained or escalating level of risk to the child}

MM - Yes. I'll do that for you.

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