Cristina Odone

Scotland’s inspiring success story with at-risk children

Scotland’s inspiring success story with at-risk children
(Photo by Andy Buchanan - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
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I never thought the Scots were more emotionally intelligent than the English. A year spent researching children at risk for the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) proved to me that they are. As documented in the CSJ’s latest report, Safely Reducing the Number of Children Going into Care, the Scots are far more advanced, in terms of their understanding of why we do what we do, than their English neighbours.

Holyrood has embraced neuroscience, enthusiastically building a social infrastructure that will support those suffering from poor mental health and trauma. Westminster, by contrast, continues to languish in the dark ages when the public would pay a penny to gawp at the tragic inmates of Bedlam. Scotland is ensuring that professionals who deal with vulnerable youngsters learn that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are the reason children have poor mental health, grow violent, and fail at school.

As of 2017, it has embedded ACE-prevention across all areas of public service, including education, health, justice and social work, committing £1.3m to practitioner training. Everyone from a youth justice worker to the carer in a children’s home is trained in trauma awareness to spot the danger signs of a child at risk: impenetrable silences, hostile (sometimes violent) outbursts, inability to concentrate. 

The brain of a neglected or abused child reacts exactly like the brain of a war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The amygdala, the almond-sized bit of the brain that controls our ‘fight or flight’ response, is similarly enlarged in both groups. Just as we would never leave a traumatised soldier in the care of anyone unfamiliar with their condition, the Scots reckon the same should be true for a traumatised child.

Scotland’s very enlightened wholesale approach to mental health will serve the country in good stead as it recovers from Covid-19. England instead risks being caught out by the trauma that the pandemic has left in its wake. Helplines for the NSPCC and victims of domestic abuse reported a surge during the successive lockdowns. In the first six months of the pandemic (April-September 2020), incidents involving death or serious harm because of suspected negligence or abuse to under-one-year-olds increased by 31 per cent over the same period in 2019. 

Among one-to-five-year-olds, it increased by 50 per cent. The number of children going into care has never been greater – 68,270 as of June 2020 – an increase of three per cent over the previous year, at a cost to the taxpayer of £10bn annually.

When 98 per cent of children in care are there because of parents’ needs rather than their own behaviour, it doesn’t take a shrink to conclude that a child’s back story may hold clues to their behaviour. The toddler who can’t articulate intelligibly may have no one at home who talks to them; the teenager harassing his classmate may be copying the way dad deals with mum. 

And yet practitioners report that social workers in England focus on the child as an autonomous individual instead of a member of a network of relationships, failing to ask questions about whether there’s trouble at home, what kind of family structure the child lives in, or parental substance misuse.

This approach risks ignoring the root cause of the problem and leaving the child at risk of recruitment by gangs, of drug abuse, of going into care. Given that over 80 per cent of the 399,500 children identified as being in need in England last year had experienced at least one ACE, this is alarming.

We can reverse this trend: negative relationships can wreck a child’s life; positive relationships can transform it. Research has shown that just one continuous relationship with a trusted grown-up can help a child overcome even the most adverse experience. Fiona Duncan, who led the recent review into Scottish children’s care, argues that we should build a system that ‘enables loving, supportive and nurturing relationships as a basis on which to thrive’.

Understanding trauma, and how to deal with it, does not call for a huge investment, as a host of cheap training programmes are now available online. Over just a few sessions, they teach how to look beyond the child’s misbehaviour to their backstory, winkle out painful feelings, and react in a calm and non-judgemental way to even the worst provocation.

Schools that have adopted a trauma-awareness approach, training everyone from the dinner lady to the head, have seen significant results. In Wolverhampton, exclusions have been reduced by a third; in north east Somerset and Leicestershire, pupils as well as teaching and non-teaching staff reported improved wellbeing and even, in some cases, academic attainment.

Kevin Campbell, the American founder of the Centre for Family Finding and Youth Connectedness, says that ‘the challenge is not hardship – we are hardwired for that; the challenge is when there is no support to overcome that hardship’. Wise words. But then, note that Campbell’s ancestors were Scots.

Cristina Odone is head of the family policy unit at the Centre for Social Justice. Her report Safely Reducing the Number of Children Going into Care is out now.