RUTH Wishart says Scotland still has a long way to go to adequately look after young people in need...


LAST month a 16-year-old boy took his own life at Polmont Young Offenders institution.

He was a lad who had bounced around the care system, coming from a family where the mother had addiction and other problems. He arrived one day at a police station and had a knife. Given his history he should have gone into a secure care unit.

But there wasn’t one available. There often isn’t, as around half of the 80 plus places in Scotland are occupied at any one time by young people from south of the border. They have a perennial shortage, and most of the Scottish units have to keep their beds filled to make ends meet. So young teenagers wind up in prison.

Recently I met some of them. It was part of the research for a report published this week on how the Scottish justice system deals with its troubled young people almost 50 years after this country opted to set up Children’s Hearings panels to try and keep young, vulnerable people out of the court system following publication of the Kilbrandon Report.

The lads I met in Polmont had all been excluded from school. Often, the only adult who was a fixed point in their life was a gran. In a group they acted with boyish bravado. In private, said the staff member closest to them, they were scared, hurt, insecure.

Together with Richard Holloway, our chair, and Kaliani Lyle, I talked to similar young people in and out of institutions, and we took evidence from a raft of criminologists examining the research being done here and globally.

It taught me a lot. Almost all the young people we met had exactly the same back story. They had witnessed violence – sometimes against themselves – they had been excluded from school, often as early as primary years, they had been in the care system. Perpetrators of offending behaviour, they had also been the victims of it.

There were positives to be found too on our journey. Juvenile crime rates have dropped, organisations like Action for Children are providing mentors to young men coming out of custody.

Places like Kibble in Paisley have highly trained staff and an enviable track record in dealing with some of the most troubled (and sometimes dangerous) young people.

The age of criminal responsibility – ludicrously low at eight in Scotland – is due to be upped to 12. (We recommended 16).

And we looked at good examples of where mediation and restorative justice had provided a place for victims to have their feelings and fears flagged up whilst offenders learned at first hand what their actions had done – often to people just like them.

What was truly shocking was that the Children’s Hearings, set up in the 1970s specifically to deal principally with young offenders, are now overwhelmingly dealing with referrals of children appearing before them as being in need of care and protection.

We are relatively enlightened in Scotland trying to look at young, vulnerable, troubled people holistically. But, not least after 10 years of austerity exacerbating stubborn areas of poverty, it’s clear we have a fair way to go.