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Alcohol, drug users, and children’s panels – getting it right


WHILE listening to the radio last night I overheard the following phrase: “I can never wake mum up when she’s been playing with needles”.

This was one of the first few sentences uttered from the recently aired Children’s Panel Scotland – Radio Campaign. Further to a little Googling, I was surprised to find that the other campaign adverts sport a similar format.

You may wonder – what’s wrong with this advert?

Undoubtedly, this campaign has merit – it promotes the agenda of the Children’s Panel, which is to protect children, highlights some of the work which they do, such as intervening in situations of abuse and encourages others, who also want to promote child welfare, to get involved. Great!

But ultimately, I feel there are several factors that led me to feel uneasy when listening to both the above campaign and the advert I heard last night. Having worked with children and their families, I have grown to believe that the ethos of Children’s Panels were to promote family cohesion and ultimately create a safe and nurturing environment for children as far as possible in their current living circumstances.

When working with parents involved in Children’s Panels I have defended this process, highlighting how ultimately Children’s Panels want to work to keep families together, through helping with additional difficulties that family members may face to promote a safe environment for children. This also links to countless pieces of evidence that suggest that children should continue to live with their family where possible.

While it isn’t clear that this campaign detracts from this view, I would argue that there are several stereotypes this campaign promotes that may in fact reiterate many of the stereotypes that others may believe about Children’s Panels.

In the campaign adverts (linked above), as well as the one I heard last night, both times alcohol and drug users were insinuated as prominent drivers in a situation of potential abuse and neglect. While it is known that addictions have a serious impact on relationships, and can fuel violence and aggression and even impact on parenting skills, to me to highlight this as a main instigator of abuse or neglect detracts from many of the complex environmental and relational factors that may lead to the involvement of a Children’s Panel.

It is therefore worthwhile to ask; does this advert really educate individuals on the purpose of a Children’s Panel, to the full and most representative extent possible? Or could more perhaps be done to highlight the difficulties that may result in requirements for a child’s further protection, while refraining from perhaps further stigmatising parents?

Further to this the framework of the advert, that then alludes to Children’s Panel members “stepping in” to prevent future situations like this. While this is of course exactly what we would expect from a Children’s Panel, this left me wondering: in what way does this highlight the role of the parent, and their opportunity for help and change? Are the parents – who I believe in actuality to be at the heart of many of the outcomes decided in Children’s Panels – not more than just obstacles or demonised characters that are the instigators of abuse? Where is the consideration of possible reform and the importance of support in these scenarios, that may potentially lead to a better outcome from children than being removed from their family home?

In the isolation of a 30 second radio advert, I found it quite difficult to comprehend how individuals with less experience of supporting vulnerable adults and families might find positivity in the role of a Children’s Panel, unless those listening had a thirst for being judge, jury and executioner. However, while the Children’s Panel is indeed a legal process, I have come to believe that judgements in these scenarios are not placed on the parent as a person, but on the situation, and ultimately how this affects the child. I’m sure there will be ways in future to ensure that these views are more accurately represented in further campaigns.

Please note: This is an opinion piece on what I realise is a very emotive subject – it is not my intention to harm others by these views, or in any way detract from the severity of the damage caused by abuse and neglect, or the importance of child protection in these situations.

Nicola McGuire has just completed an MSc in Global Mental Health at the University of Glasgow, and is now working as a support worker and also volunteering as an advocacy worker for an inpatient mental health service.

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