Chris McNaught: Cutting children’s services is a false economy which will come back to haunt us all

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THE Sunflower Garden is a special place where children can flourish and grow. In the heart of Edinburgh, at Simpson House in Queen Street, the dedicated staff and volunteers work with children who are affected by drug or alcohol misuse in their families. Child friendly and child focused, it provides a range of therapeutic services to five to 14-year-olds.

Until the project was established by CrossReach in 2003, there was no other organisation recognising the needs of children in these sorts of environments.

Since then, the service has developed an innovative way of integrating vulnerable children from families with addictions where children benefit from taking part in a “normal” environment. The results have been improvements in child-parent relationships and participation in after school care, which is a factor in preventing relapse into addiction and increases self-esteem and self-confidence. This is just one example of how giving children the right support when they need it most can pay enormous dividends.

There was an advertising campaign in the 1970s that featured a car mechanic telling a customer that he could pay now for an oil change and filter or pay later for a new engine. The same message of “pay a bit now or pay much more later” applies to the choices about what it will take for Scotland to have healthy, safe, smart and happy children.

For the past 40 years I have looked after and cared for young people and their families here in Edinburgh and across Scotland. During that time I have worked for CrossReach, one of Scotland’s largest social care organisations, providing services some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Since 1972 I have seen a lot of changes in the way we treat our young people and while some of the changes have been for the better not all have been successful. When I talk about young people I am including children and those up to 18 years of age. A lot has been done in the years since then to help young people but a lot still needs to be done as well.

The real measure of a nation’s standing is how well it looks after its children – their health and safety, their material security, education and their sense of being loved, valued and included.

We have seen a lot of legislation relevant to social services in Scotland. These have included the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 which details the general social work function of local authorities and included the establishment of the children’s hearing panel.

The fundamental purpose of the children’s hearing system was to judge on “needs, not deeds,” and that “the children’s views must be listened to”. It was a step in the right direction and they are fine principles, which I have strived to work to everyday for the past 40 years.

About 13,000 children are officially “in care” in Scotland having been required to have social work protection by a children’s hearing panel. Many of those children are from Edinburgh and the Lothians. The question we have to ask ourselves is: “Why are we letting down our young people and what can be done about it?”

In August, we launched the Children’s Conversation calling upon expertise from other parts of the church’s work, from children’s charities, and from those most important in all of this, the children themselves. From this we know:

• We need to challenge the negative portrayal of youngsters in the media, and work with government, local authorities and other agencies to develop a more tolerant societal attitude towards children and young people.

• We need to urge both the Holyrood and Westminster Governments to ensure that all policies are informed by the child’s best interests and the views of children and young people.

n What we want to see is both governments investing further in support for parenting and work together to ensure a consistent policy approach to supporting families.

Professional practice and work with children is good in many respects but not all children have access to the best quality of care and support they need. Local authorities are overstretched financially and in turn, organisations, such as CrossReach, find it increasingly challenging whilst maintaining our commitment to the needs of children and their families. As a nation we need to make a commitment to ensure no child is at risk of never reaching his or her full potential.

Early intervention and good childcare means that many children can reach their full potential in life. Funding and early intervention are neglected but they are essential for our children’s future and their children’s futures as well. These services are vital. If we get this right it is like the analogy of oil or engine, pay now or pay more later.

There are many other great examples of projects in Edinburgh and the Lothians which take this holistic approach. One is The ABBA project in East Lothian. Anger, bullying, bereavement, abuse are four huge issues facing adults and young people today.

Over the forty years some things have progressed but one message is the same, pay now or pay more later, children need our investment.

• Chris McNaught is director of Crossreach, the Children’s and Families Services of the Church of Scotland

A MOTHER TELLS OF HER SON’S EXPERIENCE

Sunflower Garden has been a lifeline for my son, K. He went through hell before he came here because his dad is an alcoholic.

K loves his dad, and I wanted him to still see his dad, but it’s so hard to keep things together and to be amicable when his dad’s around. He’s so selfish it makes me so mad. He doesn’t realise how he’s affected things and saying sorry isn’t good enough.

All of this has had an effect on K. He was having nightmares, sleeping in my bed and really becoming like a recluse. The only outside contact he was having was at school, and I knew that we were getting too close. I think K was worried I would disappear.

Finally, we got a place here at the Sunflower Garden, but even that took a long wait and only happened after K was classed as an emergency. I knew it was the right thing for him.

The difference in K when he started coming to the group was amazing. He did all sorts of stuff, making things, doing different activities and he went to a group about alcoholism, too. He really loves it here – they know him and understand him. He likes the other children. It’s not like he has to talk about things here but he obviously feels really safe and comfortable, because he just came out and spoke to staff about how he was feeling without being asked.

It’s an important part of his life and because of it he’s more confident and a lot happier.