Round up of our recent and new research

Posted on 28th Jul 2023
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Our Research Team delivered another extensive programme in the past 12 months, with a number of reports published, several pieces of research concluding, and new, ambitious pieces of research underway. Here is an in-depth look at what’s been happening …

Born into Care
In September 2020 the Scottish Government commissioned research to understand more about: the circumstances in which removal of babies shortly after birth takes place in Scotland; the work being undertaken with parents to prevent separation where possible; and the children’s pathways and permanence outcome. The research was conducted as a collaboration between the Centre for Child and Family Justice Research (Lancaster University), SCRA and the Faculty of Social Sciences (University of Stirling), with Dr Gillian Henderson leading on SCRA’s contribution.

The research consisted of two key parts:

The first used data from SCRA’s data warehouse to investigate both the scale and trends in newborns and infants (a child under 12 months of age) becoming looked after away from home via the Children’s Hearings System in Scotland. These trends were then compared with the rates of newborns and infants entering compulsory care through care proceedings in England and Wales.

The second part of the research included a detailed case file analysis of 70 infants who were subject to CSOs with a condition of residence stating that they must be looked after away from home. This analysis explored: the health characteristics of infants looked after away from home, including experience of substance withdrawal at birth; the family circumstances and difficulties prior to infants becoming looked after, including poverty and housing problems, domestic abuse, parental substance misuse and mental health difficulties; whether mothers and fathers had experience of other children being looked after away from home; families’ involvement with services and pre-birth planning; whether infants were placed into care with their brothers and sisters; and the pathways of infants into and through the Children’s Hearings System, including permanence outcomes.

Key findings of the research
The Born into Care research report was published the Scottish Government on the 19 April 2022. This shows that around 20% of all children who were looked after away from home via the Children’s Hearings System between the 1 April 2013 and the 31 March 2020 were infants. Of these, around a third became looked after away from home as newborns; i.e. in the first seven days of life. The analysis highlighted that the rates of infants being looked after away from home via the Children’s Hearings System in Scotland was lower than in England and Wales. It also showed that the use of out-of-home care for infants had remained largely stable over time; a finding that contrasted with increases in the use of these measures in England and Wales. Generally, the proportion of infants being looked after away from home via the Children’s Hearings Scotland increased in line with increasing rates of area-level deprivation.

The case file analysis was conducted using data for 70 infants who were looked after away from home on a CSO between the 1st of April 2018 and the 31st of March 2019. The analysis indicated significant levels of early adversity in the lives of these infants, with 29% having been born prematurely or having a low birth weight, 26% having experienced substance withdrawal at birth and 11% having been diagnosed with developmental delays. The majority of the infants came from families characterised by financial and housing difficulties, domestic abuse, parental mental health difficulties, substance misuse, and criminal histories. Care experience were also common, with 37% of the mothers and 24% of the fathers having been in care as a child. All bar three of the families had received significant service involvement prior to the birth of the infant in our sample, with pre-birth case conferences held for 84% of the infants. Overall 71% of the infants were placed on the Child Protection Register prior to birth. Two years after birth, 12 of the infants we followed were living with their birth parents. The remainder had all been subject to permanence proceedings, with adoption the recommended route to permanence for 40 children. On average, the decision for permanence away from home was made when infants were nine months old.

Looking specifically at the issue of recurrent child removal, the analysis concluded that 69% of the mothers of had had a previous child. Of these, the vast majority (92%) having had at least one child removed from their care prior to the birth of the infant in our sample. Around half (46%) of the mothers with older children had experienced the previous removal of an infant. A similar pattern was observed for fathers.

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). Analysis 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:
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.

Dissemination of research findings:
The final report, entitled ‘Children aged 12 to 15 years involved in offending and referred to the Children’s Reporter and Procurator Fiscal in Scotland’ was published on the 23 June 2022.

Selected findings from the report were presented by Sarah McGarrol to the Scottish Government’s Age of Criminal Responsibility Advisory Group on 9 June 2022. The was chaired by the Minister for Children and Young People.

Since the report’s publication, further dissemination of the findings have been provided to the Scottish Government’s Age of Criminal Responsibility Data & Research subgroup, and to North Lanarkshire’s Youth Justice Steering Group.

In addition, this report has been referred to, and quoted from, during evidence sessions for the Children’s Care and Justice Bill, and particularly at the Committee for Education, Children and Young People.

Next steps
This 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 with 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 behaviour. This work will be completed during 2024.

Virtual Hearings
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 questions and design were co-produced with the young people who sit on the Our Hearings, Our Voice Board. Data for the project was collected using a number of methods. These include:

  • A survey conducted with 242 foster and kinship carers in March 2022
  • Interviews and focus groups conducted with 24 residential carers, secure care workers and foster carers throughout 2022
  • Participatory research with 15 children and young people aged 14-22 throughout 2022.

All of the data gathered served the purpose of understanding more about what it had felt like to participate in a virtual Hearing, how this differed from experiences of attending in-person Hearings and what the perceived impacts of virtual Hearings had been upon decision making, participation and rights.

Key findings of the research
The survey showed that foster and kinship carers were generally satisfied with the technology being used to deliver virtual hearings; however technological issues continued to affect participation in virtual Hearings for some individuals. The existing platform used to deliver virtual Hearings was considered an improvement over previous iterations. The support provided by SCRA’s virtual Hearings team had been particularly valued, with pre-connectivity tests in particular highlighted as improving confidence around attending virtual Hearings. There was some evidence that foster carers and kinship carers had different support needs when accessing virtual Hearings, with kinship carers more likely to be offered and receive a pre-connectivity test. The majority of people surveyed felt that they had been able to participate effectively in virtual Hearings. Those who had not indicated the following barriers to participation: lack of access to childcare for other children in the home; bandwidth issues affecting the quality of audio- and video-feeds; people either feeling inhibited and unable to talk in the digital space, or feeling that the digital space had increased the level of confrontation and contention in Hearings.

Our analysis of the data gathered through interviews, focus groups and participatory workshops highlights that virtual Hearings should be retained so that individuals, particularly children and young people, are provided with choice over how they participate in the decision making process. What our findings show is that for some individuals the use of virtual Hearings can increase participation within the decision making process by allowing individuals to participate from familiar and safe spaces that make them feel emotionally safe and secure. Examples of how children and young people participated virtually included: using tablets to show Panel Members where they were living; introducing Panel Members to their toys and pets; and using colouring pencils and paper to draw or write their feelings during Hearings. Emotional safety and security was highlighted through descriptions of children and young people: feeling more confident about asking for comfort from caregivers during Hearings being able to sit and have a drink or snack while listening to Hearing; and having more autonomy over when to engage or disengage from discussions. Many of the caregivers interviewed highlighted that being able to participate from safe spaces had also had a positive effect upon the participation of parents and had reduced confrontations in Hearings.

Virtual Hearings were not a positive experience for all children and young people. We heard that the use of technology and the rules that had to be put in place to allow Hearings to function effectively (i.e. the use of the mute function, formalised turn taking and having to raise a hand to interject) added an extra layer of complexity that left young people feeling not listened to, ignored or silenced within the Hearings. Having to be present on camera made some young people feel self-conscious and nervous, and it was highlighted that adult participants in Hearings were often guilty of assuming that children and young people’s familiarity with the video functions of apps like TikTok and Snapchat meant that they would be well prepared for participating in virtual Hearings. Finally, concerns were expressed about the privacy of virtual Hearings, with children and young people in particular worrying that there might be individuals who were not supposed to be attending their Hearing sitting off camera and listening in.

Dissemination of research findings:
Findings from the study were presented at the Childhood, Care and Coronavirus Conference, at Northumbria University in December 2022. The presentation, entitled the introduction of virtual Children’s Hearings during the Covid-19 pandemic focussed upon the impact that virtual Hearings had upon the participation of children and young people. Following this conference, a proposal was submitted to Emerald Publishing by the conference organisers to create an edited collection entitled “Care and Coronavirus: Perspectives on Childhood, Youth and Family”. This included an outline for a chapter outlining the effect of virtual Hearings upon the participation of children and young people in decisions about their care and protection, which we are drafting in collaboration with three of the Board Members from Our Hearings, Our Voice. The edited collection will be published in early 2024.

Next Steps:
A report outlining the main findings from the study will be published by SCRA at the end of September 2023. In addition, a paper has been accepted for publication in a special edition of the BAAF Coram Adoption and Fostering Journal in October 2023. The paper describes the impact that Covid-19 had upon the functioning of the Children’s Hearings System and how virtual technologies were used to try and allow the safeguarding of children to continue during a public health emergency. The paper also uses both published and unpublished data held by SCRA, the Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care and Protection (CELCIS), Our Hearings, Our Voice and the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland to describe the impact of virtual Hearings on children’s rights before outlining how virtual Hearings were adapted over time to try and reduce the potential for rights infringements occurring.

Evidence from the research will be submitted to the Covid Recovery Committee in 2023 as part of the planned inquiry into the Scottish Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Findings from the virtual Hearings research will also be presented at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Annual International Conference in August 2023 in a specially organised session focussed on young people’s experiences of how spaces, including digital spaces, were used during the pandemic. The presentation is entitled “Connected but disconnected: navigating the emotional geographies of virtual Children’s Hearings during the Covid-19 pandemic”.

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. 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 in March 2022.

Next steps:
A short report overviewing the findings from the study was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the launching of the virtual Hearings research project. This will now be prepared for publication by April 2024. In addition, Dr Catherine Nixon has been invited to submit a paper for a special edition of Youth focussing on the “Residential Care of Children and Young People”. The paper will be published in early 2024 and will provide an overview of how residential care can be used as a specialist form of therapeutic intervention for children with complex trauma histories who are demonstrating concerning behaviours within the home and community. The contents of the paper will also be presented as part of a symposium being given at the European Scientific Association on Residential and Family Care for Children and Adolescents (EuSARF) in September 2023. The symposium, which is focussed on exploring what evidence exists for there being ‘child- and young person-centred practice’ across the youth care and justice sectors is being delivered in collaboration between researchers at SCRA, CELCIS and the University of Sectors.

Staying Connected
This project began in November 2021 and is a joint project between SCRA (led by Dr Kirsty Deacon) and Families Outside (Scotland’s only national charity that works solely on behalf of families affected by imprisonment). It is funded by The Promise Partnership.

The purpose of the research was to address the gap in knowledge around ‘looked after’ children and young people’s experiences of having a sibling in prison or secure care. It explored the issues around the identification, restoration and maintenance of sibling relationships where at least one sibling is within prison or secure accommodation, and how these issues can then be addressed.

To do this we analysed 200 case files on CSAS (SCRA’s case management system) to identify levels of sibling imprisonment within the sample and what data is held in terms of these relationships. One thousand entries on Families Outside’s database were also analysed. We also interviewed 12 children and young people, 4 social workers and 5 Reporters about their experiences of either being within prison or secure care with a care-experienced sibling, being a care-experienced child or young person with a sibling in prison or secure care, or having worked with those with these experiences.

A care-experienced Project Officer was employed for two days per week in the second year of the project along with six care-experienced Consultants. Nine meetings have been held so far with the Project Officer and Consultants. These have covered aspects of research participant recruitment and interview analysis, as well as inputting into workshop design on participation and on developing key themes and recommendations for the final research report.

The project has identified a number of gaps in relation to data recording and sharing. It has also highlighted the need to support the rebuilding as well as the maintenance of these sibling relationships. A range of barriers to the maintenance of these relationships, as well as a lack of support for those experiencing this specific type of sibling separation, regardless of whether they wish to maintain their relationship or not, were also identified, along with corresponding facilitators.

Next steps:
SCRA’s Research Officers in conjunction with the Project Officer and Consultants, have devised a workshop around children and young people’s participation based on learning from this and other projects undertaken by SCRA. This workshop will be delivered at the CYCJ Conference and Social Work Scotland Conferences later in 2023.

The final project report will be published at the end of 2023 and will be disseminated in a variety of different ways with input from the team of Consultants in respect of this.

Ethical, legal and right-based considerations of introducing new digital technologies within the Children’s Hearings System
Since October 2021 SCRA’s research and digital teams have been working with the Scottish Government and Saidot, a Finnish company specialising in the ethics and legalities of using Artificial  Intelligence (AI) to identify how these technologies might be used by public sector organisations. Between September and December 2022 we conducted a consultation exercises with key stakeholders that was focussed on understanding more about the potential ethics and legalities of using AI to support Reporter decision making. These consultations concluded that there was cautious support for SCRA exploring how AI technologies could be used within the Children’s Hearings System, but that there was a need to consider the wider implications that these technologies might have upon the privacy and rights of children and families.

Next steps:
A full research project exploring the ethical, legal and rights-based implications of using AI within the Children’s Hearings System will begin later in September 2023. The study aims to: 1) gain an understanding of how AI is viewed and understand by individuals familiar with the Children’s Hearings System; 2) explore perceived views around whether and how AI should be used within the Children’s Hearings System. To do this we will ask individuals with experience of administering or participating in Children’s Hearings to take part in workshops that will present hypothetical examples of how AI could be used within the Children’s Hearings System. The examples will include AI-based tools designed to support the administration of hearings, improve the quality of statistical reporting and assist Reporter decision making. Views will be sought from a wide range of individuals, including: children and young people, parents, caregivers, panel members, reporters, social workers, safeguarders, solicitors, advocacy workers and children’s rights officers.

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