CYC-Online 56 SEPTEMBER 2003
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You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone

Mark Smith

The fact that this column has been farmed out to two worryingly able substitutes over the past couple of months doesn't reflect long academic Summers I'm afraid. In fact we've been teaching summer school in The States. Strathclyde, my own university, has a long-standing exchange arrangement with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, in which each institution takes it in turn to host the summer school. This year I was the one who landed the exchange – someone's got to do it I suppose!

So we set off in late June along with seven students from Strathclyde. The focus of teaching was a comparative study of social work with children and families in Scotland and North Carolina. Maura, my wife, a former residential worker (who's now a social work teacher in a community-based family service agency) did the teaching around the Children's Hearing system and family support.

The Children's Hearing system was established following the Kilbrandon Report of 1964 and became law in the Social Work (Scotland) Act, 1968. It frames the Scottish approach to dealing with children and operates from the basic premise that children who offend and those in need of care and protection are, (surprise, surprise) one and the same, being united in a commonality of unmet need. Kilbrandon's prescription for such kids was education, “in its widest sense." Notions of punishment and retribution are subsumed beneath decisions made by three lay panel members “in the best interests of the child." The privileging of welfare over justice has to date been a cornerstone of the Scottish approach to children in need.

Teaching the Hearing System to the American students was made easy by their hugely positive reaction to such an enlightened approach. The contrast with the Carolinian system, where kids as young as six are answerable for their misdemeanours in a court of law, was stark. Equally gratifying, was the evident pride felt by the Scottish students in the hearing system and an instinctive desire to root their practice in a welfare framework.

They say, though, that a week is a long time in politics. A month's certainly a long time to be out of a country. On our return to Scotland we were confronted with a raft of proposed changes to dealing with kids in trouble. All sorts of measures, which had been lurking somewhere in the political ether, suddenly appeared in print. And pretty unsavoury stuff it is too. The Scottish Executive proposes, in response to a youth crime epidemic (that actually translates to, youth crime is falling but there's political capital to be made out of it), Anti Social Behaviour Orders, to sort out all of those nuisances who kick cans, graffiti chip shops and pee in the street. Now I'm not necessarily condoning any of these (although would have to plead guilty to a couple of them), but they're the kind of things youth do, especially when they have little respect for their elders and betters. And why on earth should they have any respect for political elders and betters who propose to put electronic tags on them if they pee in the street once too often.

Not content with blaming youth for this alleged breakdown in community values, the Executive also wants to hold their parents to account, pandering to the hoary old 'Of course I blame the parents' folklore. Personally, I blame the grannies, or maybe even the great-grandparents, ... or might it have something to do with the increasing gulf between rich and poor in our society or a political culture that talks a lot about children's rights and protecting children, but wants to lock up more and more of them? ... Where's your social inclusion now?

Waiting in Newark Airport for our connecting flight to Greensboro, I bought a book, How the Scots Invented the Modern World. It offers a great account of some of the contradictions in the Scottish psyche, highlighting the juxtaposition of a narrow religious authoritarianism with the philosophical enquiry of thinkers such as David Hume and Adam Smith that put Edinburgh at the heart of the European Enlightenment. It’s a tension that continues to this day; the liberal common-sense and humanity of Kilbrandon contrasting with the populist prescriptions of political bean counters. And the riposte of the bean counters to those of us trendy liberals who take issue with their cheap and nasty prescriptions to complex social problems is that we don't have to live in the communities that suffer from youth crime. Well maybe not, but we know more about working with youth (honed through rolling about the floor with them more times than enough and engaging in head-to-heads with their allegedly uncaring parents) than do the political advisors who seem to be driving policy down Leith way. And enough to know that youth deserve better than to be demonised by those whose political vision extends only as far as the next tabloid headline. The Scottish Parliament, re-established only in 1999, has sadly been caricatured as the 'dog-poo' parliament, on account of the fact that it can devote time to debating dog fouling but apparently cannot take a stance on issues of humanitarian import such as the detention of refugee children.

Scotland's welfare approach to youth justice is fundamentally under threat. I sometimes wonder about how threats to institutions like the hearing system can be so easily driven through. It can only happen if we as professionals allow it to and get ourselves caught up the latest blind alley of fancy risk assessments and behavioural intervention worksheets “oblivious to wider ethical, political and of course relational issues. It is easy to get stuck in our own silos.

One of the advantages of studying abroad is that it encourages a tolerance and a desire to understand other cultures and ways of working and, of course, an examination of our own assumptions and systems. Having undertaken some of that examination, those Scottish students who came with us to Greensboro, and indeed their American counterparts can rightly affirm the principles of the Children's Hearing system, whilst in our own land it's increasingly under threat.

Jeremy Millar, a couple of months ago in this column, trawled his album collection to reflect on youth culture. I'll spare readers an insight into mine, but Joni Mitchell's words come to mind ... “You don't know what you've got 'til its gone."

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