Head of Guardianship Scotland, Catriona MacSween, explains how the service is helping trafficked and asylum-seeking children to rebuild their lives.

What is the Scottish Guardianship Service?

Guardianship Scotland is a national independent child trafficking support service. We’re there for children who arrive without any family to look out for them. Every child needs a trusted adult in their lives, a go to person. In the absence of parents or caregivers, we help to provide that. All Loal Authorities in Scotland now have a legal duty to refer trafficked and asylum-seeking children and young people to our service.  

Every young person in our service gets their own Guardian, who is a trusted, independent person in their lives. Your Guardian is there for you. They’re not part of the government, or social services. They will speak up for you if you’ve got issues with accommodation, access to education or anything like that.  

A lot of our work is associated with the asylum process and making sure that survivors of trafficking are recognised and are getting the right support. It can be very complicated and confusing, especially for a child that is new to the country. Guardians help young people to make sense of everything so they understand what’s happening and can participate.  

Guardians are very involved in the lives of young people. They go with them to appointments with lawyers, social workers and the Home Office. And they help them to prepare for each stage in the process, explaining how things work and what might happen in a child-friendly way.  

What difference is it making?

For some people, success is measured in numbers. That could be a high number of young people getting refugee status (which we are seeing). But for me, it’s about the positive, long-term connections we’re building and the impact those relationships are having on young people’s lives.  

It can take years to make a difference but, over time, we’ve definitely seen improvements. We’re always looking to make the experience better for young people. From wee things like adding comfy chairs and making a room look nicer to bigger things like influencing legislation so young people aren’t being criminalised for being trafficked and forced to take part in illegal activities.  

What would happen to young people if this service didn’t exist?

The experience of children arriving in this country without family would be a lot more frightening and confusing if they didn’t have a guardian to support them.  We’re talking about children that have experienced trauma and have so much instability and uncertainty about their futures. They’re expected to engage with these really complex processes that most adults would find difficult – and the stakes are really high.  

These are big, life-changing decisions. If young people don’t understand and can’t fully take part, that can have massive consequences for them. They could potentially end up back in a country that they’re trying to escape from because they feel their lives are at risk.  

Guardians play a big role in helping young people to prove their case. They try to make it as easy as possible for children to talk about what they’ve been through – which can be very traumatic – and they can step in to speak on their behalf. They give children hope and keep them informed and updated. Young people quite often tell us that they wouldn’t be where they are today without their guardian.  

What’s the best thing about Guardianship Scotland?

I feel privileged to work for this service and to get to meet young people from all around the world. We deliver a really broad, holistic service that has grown and developed over the years. We now have a befriending service, a participation programme and a mental health service. It’s about recognising the needs of young people and responding to those needs.

Lots of the young people stay in touch. They feel like we’re their family and I can’t think of a higher accolade. The other day, a young person who first came to us in 2010 dropped into the office for a chat. He brought a wee box of chocolates and we sat down and had a blether. He was one of the first young people we supported and he’s 25 now.

Relationships are really key. Some of our cases go on for years and we build very strong bonds. We stick with the young people through appeals, tribunals and negative decisions. We have their back even after they’ve got their status, because it’s not like everything gets solved at that point. They might still need help to sort out higher education or find a job. We’re there beside them through some really challenging times and also through some really great times. It’s like a family.

Find out more about Guardianship Scotland 
Rachel Lamb
Author: Rachel Lamb