MY TURN TO TALK? The Participation of Looked After and Accomodated Children in Decision-Making Concerning Their Care
All Scottish children have the right to participate meaningfully in decision-making that directly affects their lives and well-being. So too, child-related professionals and decision-makers across Scotland have both moral and legal obligations to encourage and support children's participation.
There is widespread agreement with the principles behind these rights and obligations. However, in practice, children's participation is often complex and not easily achieved. This is confirmed by this study's review of the relevant professional and academic literature.
Successful participation in decision-making can be particularly hard for looked after and accommodated children (as well as for the professionals and adult decision-makers in their lives). These are children who have experienced difficult childhoods and inadequate parental care. This is important because effective participation in decision-making is a learned behaviour. Neither children, nor the adults working with them, were born with this skill.
This qualitative research study was undertaken to ascertain the meaning and manifestations of "children's participation in decision-making" in two Scottish local authorities (one urban, one rural). In-depth interviews were conducted with looked after children, social workers, reviewing officers and children's rights officers.
This work is distinguished by three features: a focus on the feelings and views of looked after and accommodated children; a consideration of both day-to-day participation in decision-making and participation in formal meetings about placement, parental contact and other major issues in the lives of these children; and an inclusion of the perceptions of the key professionals working with these children.
The three original aims of the study, stated in the research proposal, were as follows:
- To explore looked after children's perceptions and experiences of meetings (including Looked After Care Reviews and Children's Hearings)
- To identify and assess the adequacy of mechanisms used that facilitate looked after children's participation in (or input at) meetings.
- To make recommendations informed by key stakeholders (looked after children and social workers) on ways to facilitate the input of looked after children into meetings about their care and well-being.
At the request of the Scottish Executive, these aims were modified to include participation in contexts other than meetings. Thus the focus of the research was broadened to include participation both in and outside of formal meetings. Additionally, during the project it became apparent that the perspectives of Children's Rights Officers and Reviewing Officers would be highly relevant to the aims of the study. Thus the decision was made to include these professionals in the research in addition to social workers.
The findings from this qualitative study include:
Children are interested in having their feelings and views known to the adults making decisions about their care.
These adults are interested in - and committed to - hearing and understanding the feelings and views of all looked after and accommodated children.
The official meetings, hearings (and background forms) are imperfect vehicles for eliciting the candid feelings and views of children - and for ensuring the participation of children in decision-making about their care.
The most common problems - as described by children and adults alike - are: inadequate preparation; a tension between a child-centred agenda and a professional-centred one; language or procedures that children find confusing, boring or off-putting; and, the lack of effective tools, skills and methods for use with young and/or less verbally-adept children.
Major new resources (e.g. for more social workers with smaller caseloads who could devote more time and energy to children's participation or recruiting independent children's advocates) are needed and welcome.
Important steps can be taken even without major new resources (e.g. more child-friendly meeting environments and procedures; separate forms for different age/maturity groups; greater clarity in the agreed-upon purposes and agendas of each meeting/hearing; and, more training on effective participation for children and adults).
In addition to Scotland heeding and acting upon the findings outlined above, this study also suggests that there is a need for an on-going national-level working group to identify and promote best practice for looked after and accommodated children. The Scottish Executive already is moving in this direction through its laudable initiative around "Getting It Right for Every Child."
Looked after and accommodated children want to, and have a right to, be involved in the profound decisions facing them - decisions such as whether they will live with their birth parent(s) again or have regular contact with their siblings. Children involved in making such life-shaping decisions deserve our society's best efforts to help them to participate skilfully, confidently and effectively.
The full report is available at http://www.childreninscotland.org.uk/myturn