SCRA has published a new research report today. The report ‘Complexity in the lives of looked after children and their families in Scotland: 2003 to 2016’ is available to view here.

This research sought to answer the question – has child protection in Scotland become more complex over time, and if so, how?

The research involved examining changes in complexity in society, the Children’s Hearings System and associated legislation and practice and in the lives of looked after children aged under three years and their families.

The report found there was a changing complexity in looked after children’s lives from 2003 to 2016.

 It revealed a number of increases:

  • Extent of family fragmentation –  separation of children from their parents and siblings.  This was directly linked to  changes in child protection practice resulting in more children aged under three years being removed from their parents’ care.
  • Residence with child who is not a sibling.
  • Number of changes in Compulsory Supervision Orders (CSOs).  Contributory factors were increases in numbers of children with permanence plans, supervised contact with parents and earlier age of being taken into care.
  • Number of problems faced by parents, especially criminality. But, the frequencies of many individual parental problems were high over time suggesting a stable population of high risk parents with multiple serious problems.  Each of the following parental problems were present in over 50% of the families studied: victim of abuse; perpetrator of abuse; abused drugs; committed an offence; mental illness; inappropriate relationships; difficult childhood; unemployed; and/or was in a volatile relationship.
  • Presence of legal representatives in Hearings and number of relevant persons – both are directly linked to changes in legislation.
  • Over the past two decades in Scotland in general (i.e. not specifically amongst families of looked after children), complexity resulting from ethnic diversity and drug and alcohol abuse have increased.

The research also highlighted several decreases, including:

  • SIMD (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation) at birth – the first residence of children born in 2003 had lower SIMD than those born in 2013.  This change reflects the increase over time in the number of children who went directly from hospital after birth into foster care, since foster carers tended to live in more affluent areas than did birth parents.
  • Number of changes of co-residents experienced by child. This again was linked to the increased practice of placing children with foster carers from birth.

The report also reveals areas where there has been no change:

  • Sibling group size
  • Rates of parental separation
  • Rates of problems in extended family
  • Rates of problems for family in community
  • Number of places of residence
  • Number of concurrent residences
  • Number of changes of key worker
  • Number of child problems
  • Number of organisations working with family

The report concludes that child protection in Scotland has become more complex over time.

There are multiple factors that affect the care and protection of children which have become more complex, in particular the extent of problems faced by parents.   Legislation and practice changes to protect looked after children have also added complexity to the lives of vulnerable families both directly through their involvement in legal processes and indirectly through increased family fragmentation through interventions to take children into care.

This increased complexity in child protection has implications for all those working within the Hearings System, especially for the training of Children’s Panel Members and professionals, and in their decision making to protect vulnerable children.   Importantly, it has implications for those families who find themselves involved in an increasingly complex legal system.

If you have any questions about the report, please contact

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