Focus on our research

Posted on 15th Jul 2022
Portrait of a teenage boy using a laptop

Over the last year we had an extensive research programme with a number of reports published and several new and exciting pieces of research underway.  We wanted to share an update with you…

Age of Criminal Responsibility

In April 2020, we began conducting research on offending by children aged 12 to 15 years old.  This research was commissioned by the Scottish Government’s Advisory Group on the Age of Criminal Responsibility. Statistical data was extracted from the casefiles of 400 children who had been referred to the Reporter on offence grounds.  This included 100 children who had committed more serious offences and had been jointly reported by the police to the Reporter and Procurator Fiscal (PF). Analyses took place which explored these children’s backgrounds, histories of offending, the circumstances that influenced their behaviour, and any changes in offending or their behaviour in the 12 months following the referral.

Key findings of the research were that for many of the 400 children their lives were characterised by adversity, trauma, neglect, exposure to harmful behaviours by others, victimisation and exploitation (including criminal exploitation and sexual exploitation), often compounded by socioeconomic disadvantage. There were a number of areas of concern, including children’s educational attainment and attendance; children’s health and well-being, particularly for mental health, self-harming, substance misuse and bullying. A number of children had experienced bereavement, harmful parental behaviour, including substance misuse and parental criminality, and had witnessed significant traumatic events, including exposure to aggression and domestic violence in the home.

The majority of these children were also known to services, and had involvement with services due to child concerns before they were 12 years old. For a fifth of children, their first service involvement was before they were one year old and for the majority of children who were first referred to the Reporter, the most common first ground of referral was lack of parental care. These findings paint a disquieting picture of the backgrounds and circumstances many of these children have faced highlighting the difficult life situations they have experienced.

In terms of the offending behaviour of these children, 63% of standard offence referrals dealt with by the Reporter were low gravity, with this pattern of gravity of offence being similar at all ages. Almost half (47%) of jointly reported cases were of high gravity in comparison with the 12% of standard offence referrals to the Reporter. For both standard offence referrals and joint referrals most offences happened in the community (52%, 64%) followed by residential or foster care (16%, 9%). The most common jointly reported charge types referred to the Reporter were vandalism (20%), sexual offences (19%) and assault (16%) with almost all charges related to housebreaking, accounting for 21% of charges, were dealt with by the PF. For those offences jointly reported to the PF and the Reporter, children dealt with by the PF tended to be older, 60% were 15 years old.

Only a small number of children saw their offences result in statutory interventions from either the Reporter or the Procurator Fiscal. A Hearing was arranged for 37 children (12%) with standard offence referrals; a Hearing was arranged for seven children (13%) with joint reports; and for fifteen children (29%) the Procurator Fiscal decided to commence prosecution.

In June 2022, the final report was presented to the Scottish Government’s Age of Criminal Responsibility Advisory Group, where the Minister for Children and Young People was present. It was also published in this month. The importance of this piece of work was reflected in the media interest on its publication, including an opinion piece in The Scotsman by Karyn McCluskey, the CEO of Community Justice Scotland.

The research has been extended to more fully investigate serious and persistent offending, and gender differences in the types, severity and persistence of offending as well as in services responses. It will involve further case file analysis along with interviews of Reporters to understand their experiences of dealing with serious and/or persistent offending for children aged 12 -15 years and the decisions made by Reporters in relation to children’s offending behavior. This work will be completed by the end of 2022.

Read the full report – Children aged 12 to 15 years involved in offending and referred to the Children’s Reporter and Procurator Fiscal in Scotland.

Born into Care

In April 2022 findings from the Born into care in Scotland: Circumstances, Recurrence, & Pathways study were published by the Scottish Government. This study, which was conducted by researchers from the Universities of Lancaster and Stirling, and SCRA, investigated: 1) trends in the proportion of newborns and infants being looked after away from home, how these varied by area and deprivation, and compared with the use of these measures in England and Wales; 2) the familial and health circumstances of infants looked after away from home, including whether older siblings had previously been removed and whether siblings were placed together; 3) the pre-birth and care planning histories of the infants, including their pathways into and out of the Children’s Hearings System.

Data was analysed for all 2849 infants (aged 0-1) who entered the care system via the Children’s Hearings System between the 1st of April 2013 and the 31st March 2020. A detailed examination of the circumstances of 70 of those children and families was also undertaken in order to understand the circumstances under which infants were removed.  This data showed that in comparison to other UK nations, Scotland places a lower proportion of infants into out of home care. Between 2013 and 2020 the proportion of infants in Scotland who became looked after away from home as newborns (less than seven days old) was fairly stable at around a third. By comparison, in England and Wales the proportion of infants who entered care proceedings as newborns was higher, and showed an upward trend across the period: from 43% to 51% in England, and from 40% to 51% in Wales. The proportion of infants being removed was generally associated with deprivation.

Parents who experienced the removal of an infant from their care often had complex needs relating to poverty and housing problems, mental health, substance misuse, domestic abuse and offending histories. Many of the parents were recorded as having difficult and disrupted childhoods themselves, with significant proportions having experienced abuse or neglect. Over a third (37%) of mothers and a quarter (24%) of fathers were care experienced. Early and young parenthood was common, as was the recurrent removal of children from families was common, with nine out ten mothers who were identified as having older children having had at least one child previously removed. One in five mothers had had three or more of their children taken into care. Although information about fathers was limited, over half (56%) of those with older children were known to have had a child removed from their care.

Placement of infants with their siblings was not common, with less than a third of the infants being placed with one or more of their siblings within the two years following their removal from home. Reunification with parents was not the plan for the majority of the infants who had been removed, with 83% having had a decision for permanence away from home or adoption within two years of being removed. Although there was significant evidence of service involvement for the families, including from existing support services, specialist maternity services, and the police, the findings of this study will be used to better understand the interventions and supports needed by infants and their families. The research findings are of benefit to a number of current policy areas, including: GIRFEC, the national pregnancy and parenthood strategy, specialist maternity pathways, the Permanence And Care Excellence programme (PACE) and The Promise.

Children and Young People on Home CSOs

In May 2021 we published the seventh report in a series of reports on the effectiveness of home supervision orders. The research which was undertaken in collaboration with Robert Gordon University examined data from 172 children aged 12-16 who had been subject to a home supervision order between the 1st of April 2013 and the 31st of March 2013.  The sample was comprised of three groups of children, those referred on the grounds of not attending school, those referred on offence grounds, and those who had only ever been referred due to lack of parental care.

Our results indicate that home CSOs resulted in an significant increase in school attendance for children where non-attendance was a concern but that this was likely to have been supported by the fact that all of the children who were placed onto CSOs due to educational attendance were also offered or provided with additional support for attendance and attainment. The use of home CSOs did not affect the gravity or volume of offending by children referred on offence grounds. Given the complex needs of children in conflict of law, highlighted above in our summary of the evidence relating to our work around the Age of Criminal Responsibility, it is likely that the use of legal measures alone are insufficient to address the impact of multiple adversity and structural inequalities on adolescent offence behaviours.

Children Under the Age of 12 in Residential Care

In 2020 we began a piece of research focussed upon understanding the experiences of children under the age of 12 living in residential care. The purpose of the research was to: 1) explore the background characteristics and care trajectories of children who enter residential care at a young age; 2) explore how residential care placements are associated with socioemotional wellbeing, as well as a range of behavioural, health and educational outcomes. To do this we undertook a detailed examination of the care histories of 135 children and young people who first became subject to CSOs with residential care conditions between the 1st of April 2015 and the 31st of March 2017. We also conducted qualitative, semi-structured interviews with 60 social workers, residential care workers, foster carers and children’s panel members.

There have been two main outputs from the study to date. In September 2021 an evidence submission from the study contributed to the United Nations Day of General Discussion on the use of Alternative Care for children and young people. In March 2022 a paper entitled “How is the provision of residential care to children under the age of 12 associated with changes in children’s behaviour and mental wellbeing” was published in the Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care. The main conclusions of these documents are that children who enter residential care prior to age 12 are often male, have complex trauma histories and come from families with significant levels of additional health and social care needs related to deprivation, mental health difficulties, substance misuse and interpersonal violence. Many of the children had parents who themselves had either been in care or had been maltreated as children. It was common for the children to have had long histories of service involvement, with 50% known to services by six months of age, and 75% known to services within the first three years of life.

The average age of entering residential care was 9.58 years of age. Entry into residential care was often unplanned and used as a form of crisis intervention. repeat breakdowns of foster care placements that were attributed to the socioemotional and behavioural difficulties being exhibited by children in placement, including: violent and aggressive behaviours; sexualised behaviours; emotional dysregulation; age inappropriate toileting behaviours; and dysregulated sleep. There was little evidence that foster carers had received supports beyond the offer of respite care. Our analyses indicate that residential care can provide a period of safety and stability for these children, with improvements seen in their socioemotional wellbeing and mental health in the 24 months following entry into residential care. For instance, we used the indicators of conduct disorder to identify the proportion of children who would meet the clinical threshold for diagnosis. In the year prior to entering residential care, 70% of the children met this threshold. Within two years of being in residential care this had fallen to 36%; suggesting that many of the behaviours being exhibited were not due to an underlying psychological diagnoses but rather the instability and lack of safety being experienced.

The next stage of this work is to explore the mechanisms that may underscore these improvements, including how residential care practices work to improve outcomes for younger children with complex trauma histories. In undertaking this work we will also explore how earlier intervention and supports to children and families, including their alternative caregivers, could be used to maintain children’s place within their homes as per the recommendations of The Promise.

Our Hearings, Our Voice Evaluation

The Children’s Hearings Improvement Partnership (CHIP) asked SCRA to carry out an evaluation of Our Hearings, Our Voice (OHOV).  This aimed to answer:

  1. What do OHOV Board Members and staff, and CHIP partner organisations see as the future strategic direction of OHOV?
  2. What value has been added by OHOV and how has this been utilised by agencies involved in the Hearings System; and how does the work of OHOV fit in and influence the strategic direction of CHIP partner organisations (e.g. on participation, equalities, children’s rights)?
  3. What has enabled or hindered the operation of OHOV?
  4. Is the current operating model of OHOV effective and resource efficient?

The evaluation was carried out between May and October 2021.  It involved interviews and focus groups with the young people involved in OHOV, senior SCRA and Children’s Hearing Scotland (CHS) staff and Board Chairs, OHOV staff, and a survey of CHIP members.  It was discussed at the CHIP meeting in November 2021 and the full OHOV Evaluation Report as well as a version for children and young people was published in December 2021.  It is a powerful piece of work which sets out an exciting next phase for the group in bringing young people’s experiences of Hearings into the centre of the transformation of the system.

Piloting of a Disability Toolkit

In September 2021 we published a report outlining the development of a toolkit that could be used to identify whether children may have additional support needs. The Children’s Disability Toolkit was based upon a request from the Disabled Children Child Protection Network (DCCPN) to develop and pilot a toolkit that would: 1) allow for the identification of additional needs that could have substantial and long term impacts upon a child’s ability to carry out normal day to day activities; 2) provide an indicator of wider vulnerability and contextual factors that were pertinent to understanding child protection risk. The toolkit was piloted using data from 40 children aged 5-12 who were on CSOs with residential care conditions. We found that the toolkit was capable of identifying children who had previously been identified as a disability, but also highlighted children with no formal disability diagnoses who had additional support needs relating to their learning, communication, socioemotional, mental health or physical wellbeing. Discussions about how to facilitate improvement work in the area of identifying and addressing the additional support needs of children in Scotland are ongoing with the DCCPN.

Staying Connected: Care-experienced children and young people with a sibling in custody

In November 2021 we were successful with a funding application from The Promise Partnership for a project in partnership with Families Outside (Scotland’s only national charity that works solely on behalf of families affected by imprisonment). This is a two year project with a full-time Research Officer from SCRA working alongside Families Outside staff. The overall aims of the project are to address the gap in knowledge around care-experienced children and young people’s experiences of sibling imprisonment; to ensure that the previously unheard voices of those with this experience are heard; and to influence how to address restoration and maintenance of contact with an imprisoned sibling for care-experienced children. To do so it will explore the following: 1) What are the levels of sibling imprisonment for care-experienced  children and young people? 2) Are care-experienced children and young people supported to maintain relationships with siblings who are on remand or serving a sentence in a prison or secure unit? 3) What are the barriers and facilitators for care-experienced children and young people maintaining relationships with siblings who are on remand or serving a sentence in a prison or secure unit?

The project will involve the analysis of 200 case files on CSAS (SCRA’s case management system) and interviews with up to 30 care-experienced children and young people (up to age 25) who have experience of a sibling serving a period of remand or custodial sentence in a prison or secure accommodation, or who themselves have served a period of remand or custodial sentence and have a care-experienced sibling. The project will also employ a care-experienced Project Officer to work alongside the Research Officer and Families Outside staff. This project will end in October 2023 at which time a final report will be published, along with an accessible version for children and young people and related resources. At this time a number of events will also be held to disseminate the findings.

Virtual Hearings Study

In February 2022 we launched a study that aims to explore how virtual hearings are viewed by children, young people and their caregivers. The research, which is being coproduced with the young people who sit on the OHOV Board involves a number of strands:

  • A survey conducted with 242 foster and kinship carers in March 2022 is currently being analysed to explore the perceived impacts of virtual Hearings on children and young people. The analysis will also explore barriers and facilitators of participation, taking into consideration the changes that have been made to virtual Hearings over the course of the pandemic.
  • Interviews and focus groups will be conducted with parents, foster carers, kinship carers, residential carers and secure care staff about their views of participating in virtual Hearings. These interviews will aim to understand how attending Hearings virtually differs from the experience of face-to-face participation. They will also explore perceptions about the impact of virtual Hearings on decision making, rights and participation.
  • Participatory research will be undertaken with children and young people to explore their views on Virtual Hearings. This research will explore the same issues that will be explored with parents and carers, but will adopt a child-centred and child-led approach to data collection. This element of the study is being coproduced with OHOV Board Members and one of the first planned outputs for this aspect of the work is the development of a participatory research toolkit that can be used in wider SCRA research and consultation activities with children and young people.
  • Case File Analysis using data routinely collected by SCRA in relation to Children’s Hearings will be undertaken to explore the inclusion of the child’s voice within Hearings held during the pandemic. Data on the decision making process will also be recorded, including the effect of Hearing type on rates of continuations, deferrals, appeals and requests for early reviews of decisions. Face-to-face Hearings will be compared with virtual Hearings conducted with and without RAVHI.

The findings of the virtual Hearings study will contribute to SCRA’s ‘Keeping The Promise 2021-2024’ strategy by trying to understand how the use of virtual hearings impacts upon the participation and rights of children and families, and whether there is a desire for virtual hearings to remain part of the offering made to children and families around participation as we continue to learn to live with Covid-19.

Although the study is still in the early stages, we were invited to submit an article for a special edition of the BASF Coram Adoption and Fostering journal focussed on “the digital revolution in child and family social work”. This article, which we have just submitted for peer review, explores how the wider contextual factors of the pandemic, including the use of public health protections and emergency legislation, interacted with operational constraints and wider structural inequalities to affect the participation and rights of children and families within the Hearings System. In the process of describing these issues we identify the solutions put in place by the Children’s Hearings System to address these.

If you have any questions about any of our research, please get in touch. We would love to hear from you. Please email

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