Keeping the Promise

by Prof Nancy Loucks OBE

Today marks a year since the Independent Care Review published its far-reaching recommendations to transform Care in Scotland and published “The Promise” to improve radically the lives and futures of young people in care and on the edges of care.

A recurring theme across all strands of the review was that what children need most is families who can give them a safe and nurturing home: “For lives and futures to change, Scotland must change the way it supports families to stay together.”

Far from supporting vulnerable families to stay together, young people often experience the Justice System as the arm of the state that tears their family apart. If a parent goes to prison, children often pay a very high price, with only 5 per cent of children whose mother is sent to prison remaining in the family home post-sentencing.

I had the privilege of co-chairing the Justice and Care work stream of the Review and hearing first-hand from people whose parents had been taken to prison while they were children. Too often the Justice System failed to provide a safety net, and the children ended up in care – not for ‘risky’ behaviour or neglect, but from an adult-focused system that did not recognise or protect them.

Examples of this are common within our work at Families Outside. One young woman shared her story of how she and her sister had been left with a neighbour when her mum went to prison and were sleeping in the neighbour’s dog bed until the neighbour contacted her own social worker to ask for help.

Another young girl was 8 years old when her mum went to prison, leaving her alone with three younger siblings (including a baby) for eight months before anyone realised they had been left on their own.

These stories alone demonstrate the need for “The Promise” to be delivered. However, the Care Review also highlighted the need for wider change in the Criminal Justice System. If we fail to identify and support everyone who is impacted by decisions made in the Criminal Justice System, then it is impossible to achieve a progressive justice system that focuses on prevention.

At the heart of the Care Review and embedded in “The Promise” are Children’s Rights. We need to embed Children’s Rights in the Justice System to deliver that promise fully to care-experienced children and young people.

Pregnant women and parents with primary caring responsibility for their children should not be sent to prison unless there is an urgent and compelling public protection reason why they must. Implementing this action alone would keep children and young people out of the Care System in the first place and comply with Article 9 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Where parental imprisonment is unavoidable, the needs of children must be identified early in the justice process and appropriate support put in place to avoid children being abandoned or ending up in inappropriate (or non-existent) care arrangements, in line with Article 20 of the UNCRC.

Scotland must support children with a parent in prison to maintain their relationship if that is safe. And we must reduce the worry for children of imprisoned parents by helping them to maintain contact during their sentence, if that is what the child wants.

The simplest thing all of us can do to implement “The Promise” is to make sure that all children and young people have their views heard in the decisions that affect them. Article 12 of the UNCRC gives children and young people that right, but for so many, it does not happen. By recognising the impact of decisions (Article 3) and listening to the views of children and young people in adult criminal courts, we can start to make sure that lessons are learned and that Children’s Rights are respected.

Next week the Bill to incorporate the UNCRC in Scottish law will continue its journey through Parliament. Incorporating the UNCRC in to law and embedding it in to practice is one of the most important things we can do to ensure that the Justice System can Keep The Promise.

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