Scotland Leads The Way: A Decade Of Determination And Progress In The Fight To Protect Children

On The Cusp

“As we stand on the cusp of incorporating children’s rights into Scots law, we can look forward to the Children’s Hearing System continuing to evolve and develop with children’s rights firmly at its heart,” these words were recently spoken (and tweeted) by Bruce Adamson, Children and Young People’s Commissioner, Scotland.

Fifty years ago, in 1971, the Children’s Hearing System was created. Prior to that time, children and young people were brought before juvenile courts, entering into the criminal justice system, regardless of there having been any criminal activity.

The CHS had, as its primary charge, been a vehicle through which the voices of Scotland’s children and youth could be heard and their lived experiences taken into account when crisis brought them into contact with government services, law enforcement, or medical personnel.

The call-in from Adamson, at this time, is a reminder of Scotland’s legacy of striving to achieve fairness, justice, and safety for its youngest and most vulnerable citizens.

The laws of the land appear as if they are about to change, for the better, enshrining the fundamental human rights of children in Scottish law once and for all. Arriving at this threshold, however, was not a quick or easy journey.

Along the way, some things— important things—were missed. Widespread abuse in the form of restraint and seclusion, as a common practice in Scotland’s schools, had been and was taking place, and nothing was done. Nothing was done because hardly anyone knew of the problem.

Raising Awareness

Hardly anyone knew of the problem until parents started noticing their children were coming home with unexplained injuries and began asking questions. Many of the families had noticed changes in their child’s behavior and started investigating, trying to piece together what it was that had their children in such obvious distress and crisis. Parents learned that their children were being forcibly restrained: sometimes strapped to chairs; sometimes held down to the floor with knees and elbows of full-grown adults weighing upon their chests, arms, legs, or necks

Parents heard stories of their children being shut into tiny rooms without windows and without access to restrooms, food, or water. Eventually, stories of varying degrees of abuse in the form of restraint were brought to the surface; instances in which children/youths had been permanently injured or had died as a direct result of having been forcibly restrained.

These actions were taken in response to “challenging behavior” and allegedly “dangerous behavior” exhibited by the children.

Many of the child victims of restraint and seclusion were neurodivergent, had learning disabilities, or were otherwise disabled. Parents, understandably, raised the alarm and wanted to know who was accountable, and if the answer to that was “no one,” they wanted an answer as to why.

With there being no system of accountability in place through which schools would be mandated to report every instance of restraint or seclusion, clearly, there were dangerous gaps within the processes and protocols of the existing systems. Dramatic change was needed.

A Call For Change

Change began happening, in earnest, once parents got involved in advocating for their children’s safety and well-being and people with the power and authority to enact change got involved. Below is a timeline of the progress made in Scotland’s journey towards arriving, as it has, at the threshold of legislating the fundamental human rights of its children.

In 2010, Beth Morrison became aware of injuries that her son, Calum, who has multiple and complex learning disabilities and limited communication, had sustained as a result of severe forcible restraint; injuries that medical examiners reported were consistent with those observed on the bodies of those who had been killed by such restraint. More specifically, she discovered bruising to his arms and blood spots on his chest consistent with hemorrhaging caused by being restrained. Inquiries led nowhere and no one was ever held accountable for the actions that led to her son’s injuries and trauma.

“The use of restraint and ­seclusion in Scottish schools caring for disabled children is poorly understood and inconsistent, leading to many of our children suffering what we believe is, at best, institutional child abuse, and, at worst, criminal assault. We are also hearing of children being manhandled and dragged into ‘safe spaces’ without proper supervision or recording. We believe this is a deprivation of their liberty and their human rights. We also believe that in many cases disabled children are being subjected to restraint or seclusion as a punitive measure. Corporal punishment was banned in Scottish schools more than 30 years ago but, in our opinion, failures in guidance and scrutiny have allowed some schools to effectively re-introduce it illicitly for disabled children.” ~ Beth Morrison

2011, After telling her son’s story and that story catching on in the media, other parents began to come forward to share with Beth the stories of similar abuse suffered by their own children.

2014, Alastair Marquis, an independent education consultant, carried out a review of the Kingspark School in Dundee, the same special needs school that Calum Morrison had been attending. He called upon the school to review how it responds to students displaying so-called “challenging behavior”. Marquis’s findings were considered controversial in that he declared that he felt there was “no cause for concern” for student safety, despite the reports from multiple families of evidence of the abuses their children had suffered at the hands of school faculty and staff. Watchdog Education Scotland said that Kingspark School rated as “weak” in 2 out of 5 criteria during an inspection and also heavily criticized Marquis’s review.

2015, Beth Morrison’s petition, PE01548, was launched in The Scottish Parliament.

Later that same year, Beth Morrison’ campaign ideas were presented before The United Nations’ Children’s Rights Convention, in Geneva. The U.N. CRC made a series of recommendations in 2016 to all 4 of the UK Governments & Assemblies.

2017, Beth Morrison founded Positive & Active Behaviour Support Scotland (PABSS).

2017, Bruce Adamson, already a legal officer at the Scottish Human Rights Commission, became the Children’s Commissioner, Scotland. Further background on Adamson: In 2013 he was seconded to a position in Geneva with the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions.

2017, Beth Morrison, Bruce Adamson (Scotland’s Children’s Commissioner), and Nick Hobbs (Head of Advice and Investigations) presented findings on restraint and seclusion human rights violations within Scotland before the United Nations, in Geneva. Their report was titled The Joint submission to the United Nations Committee Against Torture 66th session on the sixth Periodic Report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland by Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland Children and Young People’s Commissioners.

In 2018, the Children & Young People’s Commissioner Scotland released No Safe Place. This was the first time Bruce Adamson used such investigative powers of his office as granted by the Scottish Parliament.

May 2018, Beth Morrison and Zoey Read founded the International Coalition Against Restraint and Seclusion (ICARS).

October 2018 , the abuse of restraint and seclusion made headlines in Northern Ireland and the U.K. when parent Deirdre Shakespeare stepped forward. She exposed the abuse and injuries her autistic son Harry encountered with mechanical restraints in school. Shakespeare’s expose was covered by Belfast Live and eventually boosted by The Independent and the BBC.

Also in 2018, Deirdre Shakespeare joined ICARS as a co-founder.

A campaign in response to No Safe Space, titled In Safe Hands, was launched by Enable Scotland, headed by Beth Morrison, in 2019.

2019, The Scottish Government agreed to Robust National Guidance after legal action by The Scottish Equality and Human Rights Commission. PABSS published a joint report with The Challenging Behaviour Foundation (CBF) titled, Reducing Restrictive Intervention Of Children And Young People.

In July of 2019, Deirdre and Rodney Shakespeare, with the support of Beth Morrison and Zoe Read representing ICARS, lobbied the Northern Ireland Assembly to consider Harry’s Law.

Significant Progress

January 2020, Following engagement between Scottish Ministers, CYPCS, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission during 2019, it was agreed that the Scottish Government would implement the following:

The development of a piece of human-rights-based guidance to minimize the use of restraint and seclusion, as part of a suite which ensures the appropriate links with Included, Engaged and Involved part 2: A positive approach to preventing and managing school exclusions: and with other policy areas including ASN, Trauma-informed Practice, Child Protection, and Safeguarding, Positive Relationships and Nurture.

  • the involvement of children, young people and their families, as well as other key stakeholders, in the development of this guidance
  • the involvement of children, young people and their families, as well as other key stakeholders in the one year review of the policy
  • a commitment to consider the restraint and seclusion data collected by local authorities as part of the one year review, and to publish this alongside the other evidence collected by the Government, to inform its assessment of the success of its preferred voluntary approach. At the same time, to reconsider the benefits of collection and analysis of local data at a national level on an ongoing basis
  • a commitment, should that review not clearly demonstrate improvement against an agreed set of indicators, to take action to place the guidance on a statutory basis, and to include specific requirements to record incidents of restraint and seclusion

The working group will develop new guidance on physical intervention and seclusion, that will sit within a suite of documents in the ‘Included, Engaged and Involved’ series that places at its core positive relationships and behavior, early intervention, de-escalation techniques, and minimization of the use of physical intervention and seclusion. The group will:

  • consider and take action on the five asks as listed above
  • collectively contribute to and develop new, robust, rights-based guidance
  • collate and share examples of best practice within local authorities which can be considered by the working group
  • consider the current approach taken by local authorities on recording and monitoring incidents, and make recommendations to take forward, which will include the introduction of a standard dataset that will ensure robust information is collected at a local authority level to support improved policy and practice and 
  • a review one year from the publication of the new guidance to assess its effectiveness

The review of the above endeavor by The Physical Intervention Working Group, given the directive to develop new national human-rights-based guidance to minimize the use of physical intervention and seclusion in Scottish schools. is due to be released and published sometime in 2021.

A Better And Safer Scotland, A Better And Safer World

If successful Scotland will achieve its goal of enshrining the fundamental human rights of children into law, and set a precedent for similar guidance and laws to be passed, globally.

The human-rights-based guidance being developed at a national level, with the collaborative efforts of many parties, will change the face of education in Scotland and far beyond. The fundamental rights of children to safety and bodily autonomy, in an educational setting, ought to be protected at all costs and Scotland has seen the rise of many champions of this cause. Their tireless efforts ~ from family hearths to Parliament and from activist communities online to the United Nations ~ have brought Scotland and the world much closer to the goal of enshrining the human rights of children into national and international law.

We are teetering on the edge of realizing a better and safer Scotland and a better and safer world.

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