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Children's panels need morale lift

For many years, children's panels have been rightly seen as the very best of Scotland's welfare system - the jewel in the crown of care.

The panels make decisions about the lives of vulnerable children and young people on the sound principle that such decisions should be taken by members of the local community. The system is also supported and run by an impressive network of reporters and volunteers motivated and driven by goodwill and the best interests of the children in their care.

So why is the organisation responsible for the panels, Children's Hearings Scotland (CHS), now so deeply mired in crisis? Why has the morale of the staff and volunteer panel members been allowed to fall so low? And why has action not been taken sooner, either by CHS or the Scottish Government, to end the crisis?

Some of the reasons for the reorganisation of the system were logical. For a long time, the panels had done an excellent job in ensuring the right decisions were made about children facing a range of complicated problems including criminality, truancy, neglect, and abuse, but the fact that the panels were arranged by local authorities had led to some regional variations and inconsistencies.

The aim of the reorganising the system was to establish a national network with national guiding principles - arguably a step that a quasi-judicial system such as children's panels needed to take in the era of human rights law. It also meant changes to the way volunteer panel members are recruited and trained. However, the changeover to the new system has been managed badly, which has resulted in considerable disquiet among volunteers and officials at CHS. A survey shows that 79% of staff and board members see morale as low and they have little faith in the management team to address problems with communication, IT systems and support networks. There have also been question marks over the retraining of the volunteers, which was put out to contract.

CHS says it is taking action to improve the situation, but it will have to do more than part company with its national convener and chief executive Bernadette Monaghan to move on from the crisis. In particular, it will have to demonstrate a willingness to be more transparent than it has been to date - the survey on staff attitudes was carried out last November, but it has taken months to be made public.

In principle, the changes to the children's panels were needed, but a valued and enviable part of Scotland's welfare system is now in crisis and the danger of not getting the reorganisation back on track quickly is that the support and goodwill of volunteers - goodwill that helped make the system a success in the first place -will be fatally undermined.

CHS says, in response, that the turnover among its volunteer members is still low, but that is probably an indication of a commitment to the children they help rather than confidence in the management. Winning those volunteers over again will be critical to the success or failure of a reorganisation that is still badly off course.

Contextual targeting label: 
Families

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