Voices in a Professional Wilderness

23rd Apr 2017

Since the Children Act 2004 was passed, there has been a growing emphasis on services actively involving children, young people and parents/carers in the commissioning, development and evaluation of services. Increasingly, Central and Local Government has shown itself to be more interested in measuring performance than focussing and celebrating the positive impacts and outcomes for children and families.

In our work with local authorities and their partners nationally we have come across various models and approaches, such as the strengthening families approach which is underpinned by the belief that families, with the support of local services and the community they live in, can improve their situation and find solutions to problems by building on their strengths rather than their weaknesses.

Although research shows that the most telling impact can be made during a child’s early years, early help is not just for very young children. Difficulties can emerge at any point throughout childhood and adolescence. Therefore, early intervention is preferable to high cost and intrusive interventions that come into play when issues have been allowed to escalate.

Yet none of the above can be done without truly listening to the child’s voice and spending quality time with the child or in the child’s environment to get a sense of what is going on.

What counts as the child’s ‘voice’?

The child’s voice is a phrase used to describe the real involvement of children and young people. It means looking beyond their views – which could just mean the child saying what they want – and being really involved in what happens. Lord Laming said of Victoria Climbié that no-one could describe a day in her life. The same could be said of Daniel Pelka. These children never had their voices heard.

Working with partners in the UK, we often come across cases where the child is not visible in case notes or in analysis of assessments. There is often lots of records about the family circumstances and why professionals are involved, but little to read about what it is like for a child or young person in that environment. On many occasions we find an overwhelming desire to provide for the needs of parents whilst the child or children’s needs are not seen or ignored.

We would urge all safeguarding professionals, social workers, police officers, health staff and teachers to remember that the voice of the child goes far beyond what is said. Non-verbal communication, such as facial expressions, demeanour and posture provides essential knowledge concerning the child’s life and must be analysed to effectively assess need, harm and risk. Also, some children use signs and symbols, as well as speech, for example language programmes such as Makaton. Other things to consider include:

  • Physical appearance can communicate – for example, an apparently emaciated baby or a suspicious bruise
  • Behaviour can mean as much as words, including in very talkative children
  • For non-verbal babies and toddlers, it is important that professionals observe their interaction with parents carefully. For example, how they approach or respond to parents says a lot about how they see their parents
  • Adult relatives or acquaintances who express concern for the child are often giving a voice to the child. Professionals should never ignore such concerns, including when expressed by ex-male partners
  • Professionals should always ask ‘what might the child be thinking or feeling in this situation?’
  • What talkative children don’t say can be important. If a child is known to have the ability to discuss something but won’t, this can be important – for example if non-verbal cues indicate wariness or fear is the reason
  • Children’s writing and drawing count as the ‘voice’ too
  • How a child smells can count. A 10 year old with no physical cause for her soiling or wetting could be communicating distress.

None of the above should be taken in isolation or over-interpreted, but all can be used and recorded as the ‘voice’ of the child. Whenever professionals consider what parents say about children’s needs or concerns, always contrast it with children’s ‘voices’ captured as above.

These views should then be combined with observations and the views of other relevant people to catch the ‘voice’.

The rights of the child

The UN Convention of the Rights of the Child contains 52 standards. Most countries, including the UK, have signed up to the convention. Many countries use the standards wholly or in part to promote children and young people’s involvement and utilise it as a way to ensure children and young people are listened to.

The standards of most relevance to the participation of children and young people are:

Article 12: Children and young people have the right to say what they think should happen when adults are making decisions that affect them, and to have their opinions taken into account. Children’s ability to form and express their opinions develops with age and most adults will naturally give the views of teenagers greater weight than those of a pre-schooler, whether in family, legal or administrative decisions.

Article 13: Children and young people have the right to get and to share information, as long as the information is not damaging to them or others. The freedom of expression includes the right to share information in any way they choose, including by talking, drawing, dancing or writing.

Article 17: Children and young people have the right to receive, seek and give information.

Missing the voice of the child

There are many Serious Case Reviews that show how children and/or young people were not spoken to by professionals. In fact, there are too many to reference.

The following examples show how the child’s voice was missed. Even now, when we audit cases in a partnership environment, I see professionals falling into these traps, especially when assessing and analysing information.

Children were not seen alone OR frequently enough, and even when they were seen, they were not asked about their wishes and feelings (including disabled children).

Agencies didn’t listen to adults who tried to speak on behalf of children and who had important knowledge of the child.

Parents/carers prevented professionals from seeing or listening to children. This doesn’t just mean physically barring workers from seeing the child, but included missing appointments/saying ‘she’s asleep’, ‘at my mum’s/friends’ etc. Also, a small but significant number of Serious Case Review children were ‘removed’ from school for home education.

Practitioners listened too much to the parents’ ‘ voice’. This could mean focussing too much on the parents’ views and needs – especially in the case of vulnerable parents – and overlooking the implications for the child.

Agencies did not interpret their findings well enough to protect the child. This included missing the importance of what children said or did.

A professional challenge

Children and young people should have the opportunity to describe things from their point of view. They should be continually involved, and have information fed back to them in a way that they can understand. Their voice should always influence the decision the professionals have made and it should evidence the thinking behind the decision making.

We would like to challenge all professionals to ask themselves: “Do I really see the child as an active partner who can usefully add to what is being set up, or do I see them as a passive victim who needs to be saved?”

The answer may not be at either extreme, but the more you see the child as a passive victim, the less they will be able to influence events.

Children and young people’s voices matter and we are the advocates that can make them and their views visible.

By Marisa de Jager, Nigel Boulton and Rachel Maloney.

Follow us on twitter @sharedvisionuk