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Voice and Choice
Children’s Rights in ‘Adult Conversations’ and Child Protection Decision Making

Part of a 5-post series on a social innovation perspective on child protection Royal Commissions

Listening to the voice of children and young people is something we talk about a lot in child protection; it’s one of those things that we say is important, however when we’re having difficult conversations about whether or not to remove children from their birth parent’s home, bringing an 8-year-old to the table productively and responsibly is tricky. It can be hard to know if including them in certain details is helping or hurting.

Fiona Arney at the Australian Centre for Child Protection has recently raised an interesting assumption that she believes underpins our child protection system: that adults know what’s best for children. We think we know, but what if we don’t really understand all of what’s best for children until we’ve heard what they’re thinking — and deeply listened, not just asking ‘do you want to live with Mum or Dad?’

When a system does ‘to’ or ‘for’, not with

When we were working in on a reunification/restoration project called Rethinking Restoration, we learned of a young 12-year-old girl who was supervised by caseworkers daily at school and on the playground because she was a ‘flight risk.’ This kind of oversight was embarrassing for her, made her feel different from and ostracised by her peers, and added to her personal narrative that she was ‘a bad kid.’ At the same time, she was physically and sexually abused by her religious community for many years, but professionals and adults didn’t believe her story and ultimately didn’t intervene in the matter. In working with children who are in foster care, residential care and kinship care, we’ve repeatedly seen children be tightly controlled by the child protection system (along with its many professionals) and at the same time overtly neglected.

When speaking with caseworkers some will say ‘Ah, every child will tell you they want to go home, but it’s not safe for them there.’ Others will say children are ‘so desperate to be loved and away from home’ they begin calling foster carers mum and dad within weeks.’ And while both could be true, both statements very much are a professional interpretation of what the child wants and needs, influenced and affected by years of working with children who have experienced harm.

The current system is conditioned and inclined to make decisions for children, or to children, rather than with them.

This is exactly why Nyland’s call for a Children’s Commissioner is so valuable, and there was one point in her recommendations that stood out to us in particular:

#7.  Engage with children in the performance of other functions and develop a strategy for doing so.

Nyland takes a bold stance that we should engage children in the process and use their perspective for understanding how well the system is performing.

This kind of thing is much easier said than done —  easy to conceptualise, but harder to action and sustain. While Australia talks a lot about ‘giving children the life they deserve’ and ‘keeping children safe’ we have much we can learn from international efforts to include child’s voice and perspective not only in decision making for their own lives but also in policy, strategy, and service development that is in fact for them.

In Norway from the age of seven children have the right to participate in decision-making about the welfare of their lives. In Finland they’ve started to design rooms and experiences with the physical point of view of a child in mind, looking at the way they design service entry points and the heights of tables and chairs so they are more accommodating to a child’s needs and height. In Scotland, through the ‘Getting it Right for Every Child reform’ they are shaping policy from the perspective of a child, making sure it would be understandable to children impacted by it.

All of these efforts to include children rather than exclude them from the process seem sensible. At TACSI when we co-design anything — new youth employment engagement practices, peer-to-peer models for whole families, family-building experiences for access (contact) sessions — we not only learn from and speak to the people who will use those services, we also facilitate a process to help them shape the ideas for what those services will be and how they will operate. End users contribute to the design from start to finish — they’re the experts of their lives, and our expertise is in helping turn their needs and wants into something that works for them and a larger system.  We do this because as humans we have assumptions about what everyone wants and needs based on our own personal preferences — genuinely understanding the values of others surfaces the unexpected and ultimately “people are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes when those in positions of authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them.”[1]

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A child protection system for children and young people by children and young people

As a society and a culture, we tend to look at decisions regarding child protection interventions the development of policy an legislation as ‘adult conversations.’  But in trying to ‘protect’ kids from tough topics, we might be missing out on a very valuable perspective and the transformative potential of children themselves.

Nyland references bringing child’s voice into ‘other functions’ in the system, and we think that’s pretty brilliant. When people talk about ‘child voice’ in child protection they usually mean children who have experienced abuse and neglect weighing in on their individual case — Nyland’s recommendation (if accepted) gives South Australia to think beyond that.

We could and should explore the benefits of enabling children to be active providers of child protection services, c0-designers of new policy and programs, evaluators of the performance of the system and contributors to the many difficult and murky decisions relating to policy. This might sound a bit radical, but it is exactly the intent of the Reforming Democracy agenda (announced last year by the Premier) which sets out an ambition for South Australian Government to explore new ways to  ‘Decide, Design and Deliver’ together with its citizens. 

What’s more is that there are already precedents for engaging children in these kinds of situations.  TACSI’s Family by Family — which supports many families dealing with child protection issues — helps children learn to support and teach other children. Child protection systems in NSW and Victoria are actively engaging in a co-design strategy to develop  new models of child protection and out of home care with children and families. South Australia is currently asking children to inform the very complex decision the State will make regarding nuclear energy through a citizen’s jury. 

At TACSI, we’re keen to explore the possibility of what a child welfare system might look like if it more intentionally designed and delivered by and with young people. At the end of this article we provide nine ways we could do that. They are nascent ideas that will require rigorous research, design, and testing processes to learn how or if they might work, but we think they are powerful and should be explored.

Sometimes as adults we overlook the potential and capability of kids, but anyone who has seen the culinary skills of Masterchef Junior contestants, read Malala Yousafzai’s  BBC articles on life under the Taliban at the age of 12, heard of Zora Ball the 7-year-old computer game developer from Philadelphia, or anyone that works in a pre-school knows that young people have the capacity to do quite incredible things when adults create the space for them to do so. There is much we can learn from the creativity and insight of children when we listen. Now, it’s just about creating a system that has mechanisms and a culture oriented towards listening and working with rather than for.

Nine other functions for children’s voices to help break cycles of abuse and neglect

There are a variety of ways we could consider including children in the process of cultivating their lives. Nyland references bringing child’s voice into ‘other functions,’ and we think that’s pretty brilliant. Here are potential other functions that could bring children into the process more concertedly, helping them more actively participate in and shape the child protection experience:

1. Children’s voice could shape difficult policy decisions

Children and young people could be engaged, through methods of deliberative democracy such as citizen jury’s to co-shape the system’s strategic policy decisions, particularly on issues of public judgement and even deciding how government spending will be utilised for them, from education opportunities to services and unique extracurricular experiences.

2. Children’s voice could keep the system accountable

Young people can play a key role in ongoing accountability of the system’s performance regarding outcomes and experiences from the perspective of people most impacted by the child protection system. Participant feedback systems like MyVoice and U-Report can engage young people via text messaging in commenting on what works and what doesn’t — giving young people a chance to voice their needs and concerns while also holding the system and its workers more accountable to the people they serve. At the same time, this info can be used capture ongoing data on family wellbeing and program outcomes.

3. Children’s voice could lead to better services

We can go beyond consulting young people in their preferences and understanding what they value in life; we could invite young people to shape new programs and ways of engaging people needing child protective services. In Finland, a program called Dandelion worked with young people to design programs and activities for children with divorced parents or with foster siblings. In NSW, TACSI is working with Family and Community Services to incorporate the needs of young people in the development of a new case management and life story tool: Childstory.  SA could develop an innovation team comprised of young people to help ideate new types of services or interactions with young people.

4. Children’s voice as support for other children in the system

In TACSI’s research in NSW around care transitions we heard from young people who yearned to know a positive role model who had also been in out-of-home-care. Peer to peer and young person to young person support can be highly motivational and an effective behaviour change tool. In Family by Family, some of the most important modelling and new learning happens from young person to young person.  Face to face or media platforms could start to bring young people together to mentor and support children going through tough times, and through restorative practice techniques, young people can even start to be the ones to help one another repair hurt and trauma or resolve conflicts.

5. Children’s voice as support for other children after care

Young people have spoken to us about the stress and anxiety they face when being expected to transition out of care after years of highly-controlled supervision, one young person shared with us “I was going to be out on the street. Three months before I turned 18, I had workers around the clock constantly. That’s the way they work. From that to nothing. They’re setting us up to fail. We rely on them so much. And then we turn 18 and don’t have any support.” Through restorative practice techniques such as circles, we’ve learned that young people are effective motivators for helping one another set goals, work toward goals, and problem solve. If well facilitated and organised, young people could start to help one another in the process of preparing for transitions, creating stable, productive communities for each other, and even supporting each other outside of care. Additionally, young people who have made effective transitions themselves could be helpful mentors for others preparing to do the same thing.

6. Children’s voice preventing abuse and neglect

The Australian Centre for Child Protection recently was involved in a study looking at how young people seek help; they found that young people had high help-seeking capabilities but often were disappointed by the support and advisory offered by their two typical ‘helpers’ parents and peers.  When equipped with valuable, proactive, correct information, rather than being an unhelpful point of contact, young people can start to be resources for one another in taking steps toward action getting help or even identifying potential needs for one another.

7. Children’s voice in re-shaping the public narrative on abuse and neglect

Many of the young people in care who we spoke to referenced feeling unacknowledged or longing to fit in, however, the media continues to perpetuate stigmatising,  ‘othering’ attitudes around families engaging with the child protection system. How might we begin to include young people in reshaping the public narrative and language used around what it means to keep children safe and enable young people to live their best lives no matter what experiences they’ve had in the past?

8. Children’s voice as grown-up leaders

We’ve heard young people reference aspirations to help fix the system that mistreated them: “If I knew how to study properly and knew how to read properly, I would become a social worker if I could. Just to help kids out because I know what it’s like. That’s one of the big things I wanted to be when I was a kid. And I’d support these children like they were my own.” Ultimately, if grown-up kids of the system were positioned as leaders of the system and had the authority to influence decisions that they could deeply empathise with, our child protection approaches might look vastly different— from the ways we prepare to remove children from their homes with their birth parents, to the way we hold access/contact visits, to court hearings.

9. Children’s voice in informing their own experience

Children and young people could play a more deliberate role in supporting decision making for themselves. How might we begin to give young people more agency and autonomy in deciding what their experience of child protection and their time in care might look like?  How do we (co)design services and systems to allow voice, and provide actual choice, so that what children say leads to changes in how budgets are allocated, services are provided and ultimately helps them shape the lives they deserve.