Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Serious concerns for child protection?

By CRFR associate researcher Dr Sarah Nelson

Several points about the absolute discharge given in Scotland last week by Lady Scott to Daniel Cieslak, who was convicted of raping a 12 year old girl, will greatly concern child protection campaigners for their potentially far-reaching implications.

First, the sentence and the judge’s remarks could be seen as in effect lowering the age of consent. The reason Mr Cieslak was convicted of rape, rather than of an under-age sexual offence, was that consent (which must be informed consent) is legally impossible under any circumstances for children under 13.

However, despite this legal impossibility the judge, who accepted that the accused genuinely believed the girl was over 16, was reported to say "Here the victim willingly participated in the sexual intercourse and there was, in fact, consent.” So there could not be consent: and yet there was. That contradiction surely needs urgent clarification. Otherwise both the absolute discharge and the judge’s remarks risk giving a “green light” to anyone wishing to have sex with a child under 13, by saying that they looked over 16. The current law is also undermined.

Secondly, while mitigating factors may well exist in an accused’s individual case – which can be reflected in length of sentence – sentencing is always also a statement of how seriously a society takes particular acts. It also deters others. So for instance the increased sentences for domestic abuse, for drink driving or dangerous driving, and other offences now taken more seriously by modern society. The absolute discharge and the remarks made a very different form of public statement.

Thirdly, there are strongly suggestive indications that the victim may have already been a vulnerable child in need of extra protection. Two girls of 12 and 13 were wandering alone in Edinburgh city centre in the small hours of the morning. One of them quickly showed sexualised behaviour with a stranger, Mr Cieslak, whom she had met in a taxi queue, then later had sex with him. These behaviours are very common reactions in some children and young people who have already been sexually abused or exploited, and would be recognised as such by anyone working with survivors of these crimes.

Was an investigation made before the trial into their circumstances, and were the girls already known to anyone who should have been protecting them? There had been more than time enough to find out between the incident in 2015 and the court case. If so, was this information passed to the court?

The reason those questions are especially important is twofold. It has now emerged that countless vulnerable girls of similar ages and behaviours to this girl were carefully groomed into agreeing to sex, then raped and brutalised by gangs in the child sexual exploitation scandals of Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford, Derby and elsewhere. The reason most were left unprotected for years by police and social services was because they were dismissed as willing partners, as “little slags”, or as “child prostitutes” by the authorities themselves. Many had been vulnerable children, already previously abused or neglected.

This knowledge, which we all possess now, makes it especially important for authorities and courts to protect children showing early sexualisation or “difficult” behaviours, not simply to accept as Lady Scott did of the girl in the case that she had “no concerns, and there was no suggestion of her being distressed". If we allow them to be dismissed as “willing” or “active” participants”, we surely contradict both Scotland’s child protection policies and its National Plan to counter child sexual exploitation.

Even where a young person is between 13 and 16 - and may indeed have limited consent, Scotland’s “National Guidance on Under-age Sexual Activity: Meeting the Needs of Children and Young People and Identifying Child Protection Concerns” recommends factors which must be considered in judging risk and the need for protection. They include informed choice, the circumstances of the sexual activity, a history of being in care, and a history of previous abuse.

In the (English) Neil Wilson case in 2013, appeal judges and Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) strongly criticised a judge who leniently treated the abuser of a vulnerable 13 year old, and said the girl was a predator and “egging you on”. Appeal judges made the highly important statement: “An under-age person who encourages sexual relations with her needs more protection, not less. The Attorney General is therefore right to say that the victim's vulnerability was an aggravating, rather than a mitigating feature”.

Is it time for such unequivocal statements – and for a Crown appeal against this sentence – north of the Border?

Student who admitted sex with 12-year-old cleared as judge calls girl ‘active participant’, Daily Record, 17-3-17.

Full details of English child sexual exploitation scandals in: Nelson, S (2016). Tackling Child Sexual Abuse: Radical approaches to prevention, protection and support, Policy Press, Chapter 4.

Scottish Government (2010) National Guidance. Under-age sexual activity: Meeting the Needs of Children and Young People and Identifying Child Protection Concerns” [para 47]. Available at:

Barrister suspended from sex cases after court comments BBC News (online), 07/08/13; Attorney General's Reference (No 53 of 2013) [2013] EWCA Crim 2544 (para.20).

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Measuring the impact of the book-gifting programme Bookbug

Ahead of the 2017 Bookbug conference research fellow Emma Davidson shares a few findings from CRFR's Bookbug research.

Bookbug is the Scottish Book Trust’s Early Years programme, encouraging parents and children to share stories, songs and rhymes from birth. The Scottish Book Trust’s Early Years programme has gifted free bags of books and resources to children in Scotland for many years, and there are Bookbug Sessions taking place every day in Scotland’s libraries, nurseries, and early years centres.

Over the last two years CRFR has been investigating the impact of the Bookbug programme on parents, carers, children and early years professionals. Amongst other questions, we have been seeking to understand the impact Bookbug has had on attitudes to reading, and whether there is a link between the way Bookbug Bags are gifted and the impact it has on families.

One of the key principles of Bookbug is that is a universal programme. This means that Bookbug Bags are available for all families in Scotland, and that Bookbug Sessions are – without exception - free to attend.

The evidence from our study shows the importance of universal delivery. Bookbug, we found, can have a positive impact on all families: not just those who might be judged ‘in need’ should the programme be means tested. For many of the parents we spoke to – including those who already described themselves as placing a high value on reading – Bookbug played a key part in reminding them of the importance of reading and singing to their children, and prompting them to dedicate time to do this:

“I definitely do think that it’s made a difference, it’s made me make sure I set, you know, 10-15 minutes aside every day, to do that [reading] with him.” 

Moreover, parents described Bookbug as encouraging them to do this at an earlier age than they initially intended:

“I would have thought “oh, she’s too young”, so it prompted me to think “oh well if they’re giving it to me, she can’t be too young…These things are good to remind you to do it…like in theory I should know what I’m doing because this is number 2, but getting books does make you think ‘oh yeah, I should actually be reading to her and not just to her sister.” 

What is clear from the data is that we cannot make assumptions about who might benefit from Bookbug based on the number of children they have, their income, gender, ethnicity and so on. Regardless of these factors families spoke about the positive impact that book-sharing has had on bonding and attachment between themselves and their children and their child’s enthusiasm for books. At the same time, Bookbug Sessions enabled many families to form new social and support networks.

We look forward to sharing more findings from our Bookbug research with you over the forthcoming months - keep an eye on the Bookbug webpages for more information, or join the CRFR research network mailing list for updates about this and other ongoing projects.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Monitoring compliance with Article 12: Council of Europe Assessment Tool

This post by Gerison Lansdown was originally published on the Together blog and is reproduced here with their permission. Gerison Lansdown is an international expert on children and young people’s participation. She is the founder director 1992-2000 of the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, and has also worked with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on several general comments including on Article 12. 

Following her presentation at ‘UNCRC in Practice’, the second seminar of the ‘UNCRC in Scotland’ series1, we are delighted to welcome Gerison Lansdown to CRFR to lead the workshop ‘Children and Young People’s Participation: how do we know if it is making a difference?’ In this workshop, she will be covering toolkits for monitoring and evaluating children’s participation and introducing a Child Participation Assessment Tool, developed by the Council of Europe.

Prior to the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1989, children’s rights were primarily defined in terms of protection. The inclusion of Article 12 in the CRC transformed the status of children from passive recipients of adult protection and care, to active agents entitled to engage in decisions and actions affecting their lives. The Committee on the Rights of the Child developed a General Comment on Article 12 in 2009, which identified it as not only a human right but also ‘one of the fundamental values of the Convention’, and a general principle to be considered in the interpretation and implementation of all other rights. The Committee recognises Article 12, together with the other civil and political rights addressing respect for evolving capacities, freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion, association, and to privacy and information (arts. 5, 13, 14, 5, 16, 17), as a package of rights that can be conceptualised as ‘participation’, although the term itself does not appear in the text of any of these articles.

However, although significant investment has been made over the past 26 years in exploring how to translate Article 12 into practice, surprisingly little progress has been made, until recently, in the development of concrete indicators against which to hold States to account in fulfilling their obligations to children under Article 12. The Council of Europe has now stepped into this breach with the introduction of its Child Participation Assessment Tool, which has been fully endorsed by member States of the Council. This Tool elaborates 10 indicators which identify the measures States need to undertake in order to make Article 12 a reality, and against which they can be held to account. It is accompanied by comprehensive guidance on how to undertake the assessment and who needs to be involved.

The indicators fall into three broad clusters:

1) Measures to protect the right to participate
  • Legal protection for children’s right to participate is reflected in the national Constitution and legislation.
  • Explicit inclusion of child participation in a cross-sectoral national strategy to implement children’s rights.
  • An independent children’s rights institution is in place and protected by law.
  • Existence of mechanisms to enable children to exercise their right to participate safely in judicial and administrative proceedings.
  • Child friendly complaints procedures are in place.

2) Measures to promote awareness of the right to participate
  • Children’s right to participate in decision-making is embedded in training programmes for professionals working with and for children.
  • Children are provided with information about their right to participate in decision-making.

3) Measures to create spaces for participation
  • Children are represented in forums, including through their own organisations, at school, local, regional and national governance level.
  • Child-targeted feedback mechanisms on public services are in place.
  • Children are supported to participate in the monitoring of the UNCRC and CRC shadow reporting, and relevant CoE instruments and conventions.

The Child Participation Assessment Tool, with its accompanying guidance, provides a rigorous framework through which to review and strengthen the existing environment in respect of children and young people’s participation rights. It can be used to enhance advocacy for greater compliance, and hold the Scottish Government to account on its commitments to the right of children and young people in Scotland to have their voices heard and taken seriously in all arenas of their lives. This represents a significant opportunity. If fully implemented, Article 12 would represent one of the most profound transformations in moving towards a culture of respect for adolescents’ rights, for their dignity and citizenship and for their capacities to contribute significantly towards their own well-being.

1The ‘UNCRC in Scotland’ series consists of four seminars held in partnership between Together, the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships and the Centre for Child Wellbeing and Protection at the University of Stirling. It seeks to improve — and address gaps — in the implementation and monitoring of the UNCRC in Scotland.

Find out more about ‘the UNCRC in Scotland’ seminar series and access materials here.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Maybe He’s Caring: Responding to disabled women who experience domestic abuse

In this post Dr Jenna Breckenridge (Research Fellow, University of Edinburgh) explores the unique domestic abuse experiences of disabled women and discusses opportunities and challenges for improving the response to this important issue.

  • Disabled women are two times more likely to experience domestic abuse than non-disabled women.
  • A large study of domestic abuse prevalence across Europe (including 28 different countries) found that 50% of disabled women have experienced domestic abuse in their lifetime1.
  • Disabled women are four times more likely to experience sexual abuse2.
  • On average, disabled women experience abuse for up to 2 years longer than non-disabled women3.

This is a significant problem in which gender discrimination and the widespread oppression of disabled people, known as disablism, collide. Disablist attitudes portray disabled people as weak and dependent, meaning that perpetrators may perceive disabled women to be easier to control and overpower. Society often portrays disabled women as asexual, undesirable and undeserving of intimate relationships and, as a result, they are often disbelieved when they disclose domestic abuse. This is especially the case when the perpetrator of abuse is also the woman’s main carer.

A unique form of abuse

Although disabled women experience all forms of domestic abuse – sexual, psychological, physical and financial - they also experience a unique form of abuse that specifically targets their impairments. Women say this abuse makes them more disabled than they need to be. For example, women have described how their perpetrators remove batteries from power wheelchairs, refuse personal care, sabotage communication devices, deliberately cause injury to assistance animals or purposefully mismanage women’s medications.

Yet, despite experiencing more severe, more prolonged and more frequent abuse, disabled women are less likely to receive sufficient domestic abuse support from agencies across health, social care and the third sector.

How do we make support more accessible?

This might involve providing more accessible forms of communication, particularly for women with learning disabilities or sensory impairments, to ensure that women understand what help is available to them. Refuges need to consider how women’s basic care needs can be met – for example, assistance with mobility, activities of daily living, transportation - especially when her abusive partner has also been her main carer. Ultimately, however, different women, with different impairments, will have different support needs and it is important that domestic abuse services have a better understanding of the unique barriers facing disabled women and develop strategies for overcoming these. The crucial first step in achieving this is to listen to disabled women and work collaboratively with them to design domestic abuse support that is inclusive and accessible to all.


1. European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (2014) Violence against women: an EU-wide survey. Accessed at
2. Martin SL, Ray N, Sotres-Alvarez D, Kupper LL, Moracco KE, Dickens PA et al. (2006) Physical and sexual assault of women with disabilities. Violence Against Women, 12: 823-838.
3. Young ME, Nosek MA, Howland C, Chanpong G, Rintala DH (1997) Prevalence of abuse of women with physical disabilities. Archive of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 78: S34-S38.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Why is it so hard to be a schoolgirl mother/mother-to-be and continue in education?

Dr Beverley Ferguson’s research explores issues surrounding teenage parents and looks at what support systems would be required to enable teenagers to continue in education after their baby is born. Beverley’s research was conducted as part of her PhD at The University of Edinburgh and was partly funded by Falkirk Council.

Schoolgirl mothers/mothers-to-be are objects of public dismay for dropping out of education and not valuing or using it as a route out of their poverty and into a secure economic position.

Despite this, academic literature and government agendas/policies do not consider why schoolgirl mothers/mothers-to-be are more likely to drop out of education nor do they ask the question ‘Why is it so difficult to continue?’ Neither have schoolgirl mothers/mothers-to-be been asked to comment on their experiences and challenges of continuing in education or what support from health and education professionals might help them to do so.

Previous discourse considers schoolgirl pregnancies as causing or perpetuating the cycle of deprivation and involving a greater risk of poverty, unemployment and isolation[1]. The importance placed on education as the preferred route for all young people therefore focuses education policies on raising standards, ensuring effective learning and teaching, gaining qualifications and going on to a positive destination.

Although policies have been produced by the Scottish Government to address health, education and socio-economic inequalities, consideration is needed on the way these have been translated into local practice in relation to schoolgirl mothers/mothers-to-be. The experiences of schoolgirl mothers/mothers-to-be continuing in education, and the way these are shaped by the social organisation of schooling and interacting policies also needs further exploration.

The role and influence of professionals in supporting schoolgirl mothers/mothers-to-be is crucial and some academics have highlighted the need for further research on this[2]. A lack of knowledge of the experiences and challenges of schoolgirl mothers/mothers-to-be can unintentionally exacerbate difficulties in their situation especially in terms of their mental health. In comparison, an in-depth knowledge of young mothers’ experiences and challenges can begin to build relationships between them and professionals.

The world of forty-three schoolgirl mothers/mothers-to-be (aged 18 or under) is explored in my mixed methods, mixed sources study which was conducted in twenty-nine Scottish secondary schools or alternative provisions across eleven local authorities.

Some of the experiences reported by these schoolgirl mothers/mothers-to-be included good experiences of school prior to becoming pregnant; searching for a connection with school staff; distractions from education; stigmatisation of pregnancy and termination; variations in response and reactions from partners, school staff and professionals. The challenges encountered included: changes in friendships; decisions and pressures of remaining in education; morning sickness; school uniform pressures; physical challenges of school buildings, getting to school, negotiating corridors, stairs, desks and chairs; timetable changes; and the emotional struggle of leaving their baby with someone else.

Participants in this study did not express regret about having a baby but talked about how it had positively influenced and changed the direction of their life. Motherhood helped participants to take school and their education more seriously even though they had to overcome disruptions and difficulties on their journey. If becoming pregnant while still in education increases the desire for educational qualifications and employment opportunities, then this presents an opportunity to take advantage of it to raise attainment, improve training and employment opportunities, potentially reduce poverty and break the cycle of deprivation.

Schoolgirl mothers/mothers-to-be could have a more positive and engaging experience of education during pregnancy and after returning to education if a range of supports and provisions tailored to meet their individual needs is provided. Although schoolgirl mothers/mothers-to-be do not all have the same needs or require the same level of help, support and provisions need to be consistent across Scotland and should not be dependent on where a schoolgirl mother/mother-to-be lives.

Dr Beverley Ferguson’s journal article 'Coming out' as pregnant or having a baby while attending school: Experiences and challenges of Scottish schoolgirl mothers/mothers-to-be is published in the International Journal on School Disaffection (Volume 12, Number 2, December 2016) DOI:


[1] Macvarish, J. (2010), ‘The Effect of 'Risk-Thinking' on the Contemporary Construction of Teenage Motherhood’. Health, Risk & Society, 12(4), pp313-322.

[2] Macvarish, J. and Billings, J.R. (2007), ‘Teenage Mothers’ Experiences of Parenthood and Views of Family Support Services in Kent. Service Users Report, Postnatal’. Centre for Health Services Studies. University of Kent, Canterbury.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Relationship-based practice with families in need

Hazel G Whitters, Senior Early Years/Child Protection Coordinator in a Glasgow Voluntary Organisation reflects on her experiences working with asylum seeking families.

Jungle, asylum, war, removal, displacement, help… the daily descriptors that we are becoming used to reading in our newspapers or viewing on our televisions as we eat an evening meal.

Familiarity can breed complacency. A plan of responsive action and prioritising resources is easy to achieve from the perspective of our armchairs as we view the world through our screens. I have great respect for policy and decision-makers who examine, and respond to the current humanitarian crisis from a strategic perspective inter-mingled with personal stories of human atrocities and suffering. But at best the world is not yet ’Getting It Right for Every Child’.

It seems so much easier to be a practitioner. Traditionally, child care and education workers are used to embracing new ventures, stimulated by the challenges, sympathetic to the child’s needs regardless of the cause, and immune to the frenetic political communications. Play is our medium of interaction and care. Play is our therapy to heal the effect of adversities, and to promote achievement. Play is our world’s common language.

Government statistics tell us that in the UK 36,465 asylum applications were made in 2015-16. I always think it is useful and relevant to place statistics in a context of practice. The cause of human needs must influence the approach to intervention in current proactive response by services. Many years ago practitioners encouraged parents to forget childhood adversities and focus on the future - the premise being that out of sight = out of mind. Today, research (Whitters, 2015, 2016) has given us a greater understanding of human development, and the significant impact of historical influences upon our abilities to operate as successful individuals and effective contributors to society. A high level of human involvement in a learning environment can only be achieved if accompanied by emotional well-being. A plan which has goals, and a process to recognise success. Empowerment which is gained through decision-making for a life-plan is key for human beings to rehabilitate post-trauma.

The voluntary sector is well-placed to respond to these needs as service planning and delivery can incorporate responsive personalised care. A therapeutic approach to supporting the needs of people who are striving to create a different inner working model is essential: Healing of mind and body for people who are determined to forge a positive pathway through life, and who have decided to embrace the culture of another country as a source of support. Engaging with parents who are seeking asylum is straightforward in practice as language and cultural differences are certainly not barriers but provide focus for interaction. Our clumsy attempts to reproduce dialects prompt laughter and shared moments of partnership with parents.

Interactive guidance, in the form of supported play with parents and children, creates a learning environment for families which provides ample opportunity for the promotion of mental and physical good health for children and parents. Experience has shown me that human beings can identify positive aspects from childhood and adulthood. A young teenage mum, who spent time in the infamous jungle at Calais, told me of the community spirit which enabled her to walk tall and view the world with dignity. She talked about the creation of an athletic club in the camp which enabled her to demonstrate physical prowess, and to shine amidst the mud and misery. The resilience of human beings is legendary…

Politicians, strategic planners – good luck. Practitioners - continue what you do best - relationship-based practice with families in need – innovative intervention which helps us to learn and improve alongside families who are embracing life from a different perspective.


Hazel G Whitters has worked in child protection for over 30 years and was awarded her PhD from the University of Strathclyde in 2015. Her thesis 'Perceptions of the influences upon the parent-professional relationship in a context of early intervention and child protection' is available online from the British Library

Whitters, H. G., (2016) The Parent-Professional Relationship in Child Protection. A WithScotland Briefing. pdf:

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Sexual Abuse: A Crisis for Football?

Following her CRFR seminar series on childhood sexual abuse, CRFR Associate Researcher Dr Sarah Nelson reflects on the recent disclosures of abuse in football.

In the space of a mere three weeks, since several former professional footballers spoke publicly about their sexual abuse as young players, more than 850 people have called a special NSPCC helpline. More than 55 professional and amateur clubs have been linked to allegations; in excess of 20 police forces are investigating; and helplines receive more calls daily.

Does this mean that football is somehow more prone to childhood sexual abuse than other sports? The answer to that anxious, understandable question is likely to be “no”.

Football is played more widely than any other sport among 11-15 year old boys, and thus the sheer number vulnerable to abuse is bound to be greater. In addition, it is not a particular sport, a particular religion, profession, or group within society which is most likely to have perpetrators of child sexual abuse (CSA) within it. It is the way in which particular values and other factors come together, encouraging abuse to continue in that particular setting.

Especially with respect to abuse from outside the family – as in this case - they include:

  • The extent of power the adult has over children (in football, control over the boy in achieving his longed-for, dream career);
  • The importance of children’s obedience to adults (in children’s sports, the coach’s role; in many other settings, strongly patriarchal values towards women and children);
  • The extent to which parents and community trust, or defer to, the abusive adult (in children’s sports the selfless, helpful coach; with clergy, supposed men of God);
  • The social stigma and low credibility faced by some children and teenagers (only relevant to some children in this case, but very relevant to abuse in care and child sexual exploitation);
  • The culture of the particular setting, in silencing, dismissing and/or disbelieving victims (“macho” male values and bravado in football, rugby, boxing or snooker; in some ethnic and religious groups, the power of shame).
It may perhaps seem surprising that opportunity is not included above. However, the factors described create it in themselves. Also, abusers rarely need special or additional opportunity. They skilfully create opportunities out of little, even in “plain sight” of others - as the prolific abuser Jimmy Savile demonstrated.

Football coaches are not somehow more dangerous than people elsewhere. It is not that most coaches are abusers, but that youth football is one ideal setting to which the minority of abusers against boys will gravitate. This is precisely why no-one involved in coaching should take personal offence at the need for clubs and schools to be extremely vigilant about their recruitment and monitoring.

Nor should men involved in coaching the sport now protest that they are not trusted any more, that children or parents will think they are unsafe, and that they are put off volunteering at all. There can be a defensive self-indulgence about this, though it may sound harsh to say so. Adults working in professions where there have been scandals can be assured that children and young people sense when the ways in which adults talk, behave and touch are safe or unsafe. Survivors of sexual abuse will confirm this. If you are a safe person, and with no sexual interest in young people, they will sense it.

It is still very understandable that parents will feel more anxious than before. They can find at least considerable reassurance in the children’s safeguarding initiatives, in football and other sports, which are now in place. They can take an active interest in what these are, and how they might be improved, in their own children’s clubs.

One of the greatest of safeguards lies in parents telling their children repeatedly to let them know straight away if anyone makes them feel uncomfortable in a sexual way, and that they will not be angry with them, will not dismiss nor blame them -whoever that person is - even a family friend, relative or respected member of the community.

When parents say this, they need to mean it too. So they should talk through with each other, or with a support organisation, any understandable difficulties they would have in taking on board difficult information about somebody they trust.

Amongst the genuinely disturbing scale of current revelations about football there are some very encouraging aspects. In a “macho” sport notable for silencing any issues of sexuality which do not involve boasting about women, numerous men continue to come forward publicly with courage and strength, to talk openly and angrily about an abuse which still fills many men with deep shame and humiliation.

They have set a striking example to others who remain silenced. They have spurred on inquiries about past, unacknowledged crimes – and a greater alertness to current ones.

Sarah Nelson is author of Tackling Child Sexual Abuse: Radical approaches to prevention, protection and support (Policy Press, 2016). Several chapters in this book describe research carried out at CRFR, including research with male survivors.

The Scottish Football Association urges anyone with any information relating to abuse or inappropriate behaviour – whether current or historic – to get in touch via the NSPCC’s helpline 0800 023 2642, or email