Highland Council has confirmed that it is referring child protection concerns to the police.
In an emergency statement to Thursday’s Health, Social Care and Wellbeing Committee, both the chief social work officer and chairwoman confirmed that serious allegations have been made regarding drug gangs and child exploitation.
Chairwoman Linda Munro said: “I’m in the deeply troubled position of having a list of allegations that suggest that young people are experiencing harm difficulty, and are not where they should be in our care services.
“I don’t have any evidence, and having been passed this list I don’t know how many young people are involved.
“I don’t know the ages of the young people, whether they’re still within our services or if they’re even in Highland.
“No matter. The fact is these allegations suggest that within our care all is not as it should be.
“I have taken advice, I have considered this matter, I have reconsidered this matter, and it is my decision that at the conclusion of today’s committee I will be handing this to Police Scotland.
“I’m not going to discuss it anymore.”
The details of the allegations are extremely serious. The written report for the committee stated that new data has emerged showing that drug gangs are targeting young people in care.
The report said that the council has commissioned two independent reviews which will report back in February 2022.
However, Fiona Duncan – as executive chief officer and chief social work officer – took a more grave tone in her emergency statement.
She said: “You will see from my report today that there has been an increase in the number of child concern referrals, as well as complexity of needs, across all areas of Highland.
“Further, data suggesting that the prevalence of county lines and child exploitation has increased, with particular focus on our care experienced young people in residential houses. These increases are consistent with experiences across Scotland.”
Ms Duncan highlighted that any child protection concerns should be referred to social work or the police for full investigation.
She said she could not discuss the specific allegations that have now been brought to the attention of the service.
However, she stated: “I can confirm that a number of processes have commenced.
“These include whistleblowing – which is an independent process – the grievance procedure, and the complaints procedure. While these are initiated for different reasons, all should result in an outcome which normally includes an action plan and learning outcomes.”
Ms Duncan confirmed that two independent reviews have commenced.
The first review involves two external social work professionals engaging with staff to examine practice within children’s services. The second looks specifically at residential services and is led by an independent, highly experienced social work manager.
In addition to reporting back to the Health, Social Care and Wellbeing Committee, the report will go to the child protection committee.
“The CPC is responsible for multi-agency policy, procedure guidance and practice,” Ms Duncan explained.
“If any action is required to improve practice or service delivery this will clearly be stated by the CPC.
“Further, they also have in place mechanisms to decide whether or not to trigger a learning review.
“This will give the committee the assurances it requires that services are responding appropriately to the issues impacting on – and the needs of – our young people.”
By local democracy reporter Nicola Sinclair