Children should be heard

In her first interview, children’s panel chief Bernadette Monaghan tells Stephen Naysmith why the system is being improved

Bernadette Monaghan measures her words carefully: “It’s a great system, a unique system,” she says of Scotland’s children’s panels.

“But there’s always room for improvement.”

The children’s hearing system, established in 1971 is indeed unique. It’s critics would say that is because nobody else wants it. If it is so good, why doesn’t any other country copy it, they ask?

Nevertheless it is widely admired for the way it deals with children in trouble as just that. It puts the needs of a child ahead of their deeds, treating neglected and abused children the same way as those who have committed criminal offences.

The child is brought in front of a panel of three lay members of the community, who have been trained to make decisions in the child’s best interest – after discussions with their family, key professionals such as teachers and social workers, and crucially, the child itself.

Ms Monaghan knows how the system works, because she has nine years’ experience as a panel member in Edinburgh, where she sat on children’s hearings from 1989 to 1998.

This was one of the reasons she was appointed to the new role of national convener in April.

“It was a good experience,” she says. “You learn so many skills – such as dealing with tense situations and having to ask questions you don’t want to ask. It gives you an understanding of the situations young people grow up in.

“When I first started there were a lot of cases where children were refusing to go to school, but it has become more and more complex, largely due to issues such as alcohol, domestic violence and drugs.”

However the system is now facing major reforms. Because of concerns it is not compliant with European human rights laws, the organisation which recruits and manages panel members to make decisions in children’s cases has had to be separated from the Scottish Children’s Reporters Administration, which manages reporters – usually specialist lawyers, who decide which children need to go before a panel in the first place.

At the same time Scottish ministers have taken the opportunity to press through other reforms designed to tackle a perception that standards of training and decision-making are too variable across the country.

All of this was delivered in the shape of the Children’s Hearings (Scotland) Act 2011.

The most visible results are a new national agency – Children’s Hearings Scotland – and an entirely new post, that of National Convener.

In April, Bernadette Monaghan was appointed to that role. Paid £69,000 a year on a five-year contract, she is responsible for managing a raft of reforms and will also be chief executive of Children’s Hearings Scotland. She is former director of the rehabilitation charity Apex Scotland, and worked for community safety charity Sacro.

Ultimately, she will be responsible for the recruitment, training, support and monitoring of panel members. For now, she has a shadow role, as the agency is set up, ready to take over at a date which will be announced by ministers.

She says having a national agency will provide greater flexibility and won’t undermine the local basis of the system.

“Panel members feared they would have to travel the length of Scotland to sit on hearings, under a national system. That won’t happen, but it does give us flexibility – so that if someone moves to a different area they won’t have to retrain,” she says.

Meanwhile her own role, responsible for 2500 volunteer panel members, is a step forward, she says. “This is the first time there has ever been a figurehead and someone to provide a voice for panel members.”

She doesn’t view them as volunteers, she says. “It takes a special breed of person to sign up as a children’s panel member. They volunteer to train to become a panel member, but after that they are given a licence to make decisions that will affect damaged young people’s lives. That takes an awful lot of skilled decision-making and professionalism.”

One of her longer term goals is to promote those aspects to Scotland’s employers, she says. There is generally an expectation that, because of the importance of the role, employers will be supportive of staff who want to be involved in the children’s hearing system.

However, anecdotally, attitudes have become less helpful in the current tougher financial climate, Ms Monaghan says. “I want to raise awareness with employers, promote understanding of the system and the kind of transferrable skills people gain from taking part.”

There are more pressing issues, however. Ms Monaghan’s first few months have been busy. She is consulting on her plans to divide the country into 17 Area Support Teams which will manage children’s panels in their areas.

This is in itself controversial, as children’s hearings are presently organised to mirror local authority boundaries, and the principle of local people making decisions about local children underpins the system.

She hopes to have agreement on these by December. By then, she will have a plan for ensuring national standards are also ready for consultation.

These should clarify how the demands of ministers for a “feedback loop” will be delivered – to give panel members better information about the outcomes of the decisions they take. Some agencies, including the Association of Directors of Social Work remain unhappy about this, warning it could be bureaucratic and labour-intensive, and also might breach the confidentiality of young people.

Ms Monaghan is confident the desire for better information about outcomes can be achieved while addressing these concerns. “Feedback shouldn’t be at the level of individual cases – that would be fraught with problems. But I think we can get something realistic while not putting too many burdens on social work departments. Panels do want to know that the decisions they take are taken seriously and implemented by social workers.”

The national standards will also detail reforms to the training of panel members – which is currently handled by four universities: Aberdeen, St Andrews, Glasgow and Edinburgh’s Queen Margaret University College.

That will also involve retraining for existing panel members, which could prove unpopular.

Ms Monaghan suggests this could involve “conversion” training on ensuring hearings are compatible with the European Court of Human Rights. However the Scottish Government has previously indicated that it might involve more wholesale retraining.

Whatever the outcome – and responsibility for training is likely to be part of a procurement process – the new national convener is banking on retaining her sizeable army of panel members.

“Children’s hearings have been changing and evolving ever since they were introduced. We’ve never had mass resignations of panel members,” she says. “This is a welfare based system, and the ECHR assumes an adversarial approach which doesn’t sit neatly with the Children’s Hearing System. We have to drive up the standard of practice. Panel members will have to be very clear about their decisions.”

There will be more and more lawyers coming to children’s hearings and doubtless many more cases will be appealed, she says.

“We need competent and confident panel chairs, who are able to handle the presence of lawyers in the hearing and still keep the focus on the young person. That is the world we are in.”

That sounds like a tall order, and she doesn’t disagree. “We are very fortunate indeed to have so many people signing up for this – the whole system depends upon them. I don’t think we can take it for granted.”