VITAL decisions about the welfare of vulnerable children are being made by an organisation operating under a "veil of trepidation," according to a new report.
A survey of staff at Children's Hearings Scotland (CHS) and the volunteer panel members who make decisions about children in trouble has laid bare claims of a culture of "fear and uncertainty" as it took on responsibility for the training and recruitment of panel members.
The independent report was prepared by consultants Progressive Partnerships and commissioned by the CHS board. A sanitised version of its findings was issued earlier this month, but the full report has now been obtained by The Herald under freedom of information legislation. CHS said it had always intended to publish the full report.
It includes satisfaction ratings expressed by CHS staff about their management team. More than half of those responding gave their bosses negative scores on all six criteria used.
The report says healthy satisfaction ratings would be 70% or higher, based on other such studies. "This indicates a serious lack of confidence," it says, adding: "There are large percentages who disagree their line managers have the requisite skills. This is very unusual and wouldn't be found in well-running organisations."
It also records significant concerns about a lack of resources to bring in the new system, which introduced a national organisation to support the 2700 volunteers who sit on panels across Scotland and rationalise training and recruitment.
Only 7% of those surveyed believed they had the resources they needed to carry out their role effectively. Meanwhile, a recent national campaign to recruit panel members is described as "an absolute shambles".
Quotes from online surveys and interviews were cut from the previously published report. One senior volunteer said: "Morale is low. I am trying to keep how bad things actually are contained from the front line so as not to make it worse."
The board was also heavily criticised for being remote, hard to contact and out of touch. One respondent said bluntly: "There is huge confusion over what they do, and you know why? Because they don't know themselves."
While the system of lay tribunals has continued to function during the handover from local council-run panels to Children's Hearings Scotland, there is increasing frustration among many panel members about the turmoil at the head of the organisation. The board's chairman Craig Spence departed last year and the chief executive and national convener Bernadette Monaghan was first suspended, then left last month.
The concern is that the problems may ultimately affect children and families. The report reflects this. "Panel members and family are now at the bottom of the pile," one local panel representative said. "Before, panel members were right at the heart of things."
Boyd McAdam, interim chief executive of CHS, said the report added detail but did not alter the organisation's plans to respond to its findings.
He said: "Five months have now passed since that survey was carried out. We have an action plan in place which identifies what we will do to implement improvements and changes to help us move forward.
"We have a new experienced chair, Garry Coutts, and he and I are totally committed to delivering on this action plan and to supporting volunteers and staff."
Mr Coutts said: "By learning from the findings of the organisational review and focusing on what is best for children and families I am confident CHS will become a valuable and valued part of Scottish public life."