THE leader of Children’s Hearings Scotland has hit back at claims the system is “not fit for purpose” and children are removed from families more often than in England by “poorly trained” volunteers.

Maggie Mellon, a founder of the charity Parents Advocacy and Rights (PAR), said panel members were not equipped to make decisions about the long-term future of children considered at risk, such as cutting contact with parents.

In an article for The Times she said too many children were being removed “with little or not investigation” only to be returned to parents, years later and said infants are removed from their mothers – within days of being born – based on assessments by social workers that there is a “future risk of harm.”

According to a report published by the Scottish Centre for Administrative Data Research, around one in 85 children were in care before their first birthday in Scotland, compared to one in 119 in England. Researchers found that a by the age of five, more than a third had been returned to their birth parents.

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A review of the children’s hearing system is underway, led by Former Sheriff David Mackie.

Elliot Jackson, National Convener and Chief Executive, of Children’s Hearings Scotland, said panel members are “highly trained” to perform their role and said sheriffs play a central role in the system.

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He said: “Panel Members have a vital role in protecting infants, children and young people in our communities across Scotland. 

“These highly trained and dedicated lay tribunal members put the best interests of the child at the centre of everything they do. 

“Some of the decisions they have to make, are the most difficult that anyone might have to take in public life in Scotland.

“I can assure you that panel members take the weight of these decisions seriously.

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"To ensure that they are fully equipped to make important decisions in hearings, our panel members are highly trained. They are required to complete a Professional Development Award as benchmarked by the Scottish Qualification Authority. This award takes 24 months to fully complete.

“Once this award is completed, they are then required to complete a variety of mandatory training, which is focused on evolving legislative and practice developments within the children’s hearing system, many of these coming from recommendations from The Promise.”

The Children’s Hearings System began operating on April 15, 1971, taking over from the courts the responsibility for dealing with children and young people who are at risk or who have committed alleged offences – which now make up a small minority of cases.

Where there is difference of opinion between the family’s view of the reasons which have brought them to a children’s hearing and that of the local authority, a sheriff will decide whose version is correct, rather than panel members.

Mr Jackson said parents have the right to appeal decisions and are entitled to legal representation during hearings, while panel member decisions are informed by a range of different people and professionals “who know the child or young person”.

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He said: “This could include: family members, carers, advocates who represent the child or young person, a safeguarder who is assigned to protect the rights of the child or young person, social workers and a family’s legal representative. 

“At every hearing, the views of the child or young person have a central role in informing the decision-making process.

“Decisions are made openly, and transparently, in front of all parties. 

“After decisions are made, the child or young person and their parents have the right to appeal the decision of the hearing to the Sheriff Court and a right to request a review hearing after three months. 

“The separation of fact-finding from decision making and appeals to a Sheriff, provide checks and balances within the system and refutes any suggestion that there is not due process within a children’s hearing.”

Neil Hunter, Chief Executive of the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration (SCRA) which refers cases to panels said: “We continue to believe in the Children’s Hearing as a way of making child and family centred decisions through a rights-based approach, where children and young people’s voices, views and opinions are given real weight and prominence.”