Ruth Stark: Sheriff’s attack on social workers shows criminal lack of understanding of their role

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A week, they say, is a long time in politics. It could also be said that a year is a long time in the life of a teenager.


 Violence, in any circumstances, is wrong. We have to consider the short and long-term effect that 
violence has on victims.

But at the same time, we also have to learn how to deter people from behaving in a way that is harmful to others.

Though we cannot condone the outcome of young people’s actions when they engage in damaging behaviour, surely it is better for the community if we also consider how they can be helped into changing.

How should we as a society help young people who use alcohol and other drugs deal with the frequently harmful effect that it can have on them and, subsequently, others?

Young people sometimes need to be helped to understand the impact their behaviour has on others around them, and be encouraged to make the right decisions, to stand up against the crowd. We need them, even when they make mistakes, to ultimately become responsible and caring citizens, treating people with respect and dignity.

Social workers are not in court to perform the same task as lawyers, who represent their clients and make pleas in mitigation. Almost always there is a long period of time between the date the offence was committed and the date that the sentence is given by the court. What has happened to the young person in between times is an important consideration.

When a social worker is appointed to make a report to the court, they are able to explain what has changed for the young person in the intervening time between offence and sentence. Social workers are expected to advise on the likely consequences of the various sentences that the court can consider when assessing an offender’s likelihood of re-offending.

Social workers are asked to make a professional assessment of the young person, the family and environment in which the offender lives. Part of this includes looking at the triggers that might have fuelled the offence. This information is presented to the court so that a considered judgement about deterring an individual from future offending can be made.

Social workers also refer to the research that tells us the difference between what works to prevent future offending and what spirals young people into committing more crime. They also assess the factors present in the young person’s life that will support a change in their behaviour, such as positive 
family relationships.

A social worker will take into account that for a young person, a day, or a year, is a relatively long time compared with an older person, for whom time flies.

The learning curve and ways that people change their behaviour is age- related.

Any of us who have been parents to teenage children know we often live on a knife-edge of the swings and roundabouts of teenage emotions and 
hormones.

We concentrate on how we can help people to achieve change in their lives. The court has a range of options for Community Payback Orders, some of which may involve social work 
intervention to help people change their 
behaviour.

The social worker’s report to court is a professional assessment which provides information for the court. This, along with other information, informs the sentence about factors to consider when determining the sentence.

It’s a hard task getting the balance right for all parties, but we need to understand what each party brings to the ultimate decision-making.

• Ruth Stark is manager of the Scottish Association of Social Work

Leniency plea provoked ire

SHERIFF James Scott’s cutting words came after social workers recommended he let off an armed teenage thug who threatened to kill a couple in their home.

William Hamilton threatened to kill Charles Murphy and went on to cut his face with a knife during a raid on his home in Greenbank Lane, Morningside. He also threatened his wife.

The 16-year-old – just 15 at the time – had been drunk and armed with a knife during the terrifying incident. Despite this, social workers appealed for the sentence to be deferred for good behaviour.

That provoked the veteran sheriff to tell Edinburgh Sheriff Court: “I just wonder what planet some of these people live on – not the same as mine.”