6 The Hearing - making decisions
A children's hearing is a decision making process. Although the ultimate aim is to make a disposal, a series of decisions are in fact being made throughout the course of the hearing. These may include who should be present at the hearing, whether to exclude someone from the hearing, whether or not a safeguarder should be appointed and whether disputed grounds should be sent to court for proof. Decisions may also be made about non disclosure of address or information.
While it is hoped that a consensus will naturally develop from the discussion in the hearing, differences of opinion may emerge and these must be carefully considered and discussed. If the process of the hearing has been clear, with explanations and summing up at every stage, the decision should never come as a shock to the family even if they do not agree with it. If the decision of the hearing differs from any views expressed by the child and or relevant persons, the hearing should acknowledge this and explain that, whilst they have been taken account of their views, the paramount consideration in reaching a decision must be the welfare of the child.
In order to make a decision, panel members will take into account the following issues:
Information about the case
This is gained from the reports about the circumstances of the child and discussion during the hearing.
The views of other people
Hearings have a duty to seek the child's views and to encourage participation by relevant persons in the decision making process. Panel members will also consider the views expressed in reports and those from other parties at the hearing.
Panel members' knowledge and judgement
This knowledge comes from panel members own experience of children, families and the community. As panel members are drawn from all parts of society, this knowledge and awareness is very important. Panel members will also have the knowledge of the children's hearing system through training, experience and other resources. One important aspect is knowing what legal options are open to the hearing in any particular case and what resources there are in existence which might meet the child's needs.
The aims of the decision
Hearings' decisions need to be forward looking, considering, identifying and deciding what needs to be changed in a child's circumstances in order to resolve issues which have had an adverse impact on the child's life. A panel member's role is to make decisions in the child's best interests considering not only what is needed for the present but for the whole of that child's childhood.
Personal attitudes and values
Common sense is an essential feature for all panel members. It is important for panel members to be aware of their own prejudices and not to make any decisions based on these. One strength of the system is that the views of all three panel members will contribute to the decision. The chairing member's decision has no more 'weight' than that of the other two panel members. Panel members should never feel that they must agree with each other and it is essential that each panel member makes up their own mind honestly and independently in reaching a decision. Panel members are making potentially life changing decisions about a child's life and such decisions must be made by an independent and impartial tribunal as laid down in Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. For the purposes of the child and the child's family, panel members are that independent and impartial tribunal.
A framework for decision making
When reaching decisions, panel members should:
child's basic physical, social, emotional and educational need
child's developmental level
other relevant information
which needs are being met
which needs are not being met
which of the needs could be met
whether failure to meet needs amounts to abuse
on the course of action which will best meet the child's needs
Key questions in meeting the needs of children and young people
When reflecting on the needs of a children and young people and whether a compulsory supervision order is necessary, panel members should consider:
- Is the child or young person generally within adult control?
- Is the child or young person being looked after by adults who can exercise authority, guidance and support, in a consistent, reasonable and appropriate manner?
- Does the child or young person have a home environment offering appropriate care, nurturing, supervision, structure and routine?
- Is the child or young person attending nursery or school and making progress socially and educationally?
- Is the child or young person being offered opportunities to engage in appropriate activities?
- Are there opportunities for reasoned discussion, guidance and responsible behaviour?
If the answer to any or all of these is no, then panel members will need to decide whether a compulsory supervision order is required to offer the necessary protection, guidance, treatment or control.
Assessment of risk
Many of the decisions panel members will be making involve balancing risks. In order to do this, they will need to take account of the following questions:
- Is it safe for the child to go home?
- Do the possible damaging effects of separation from the family outweigh the risks of leaving the child at home?
- Are the parents likely to be co operative to social work intervention if the child is returned home?
The most important thing for panel members to remember is that if they feel that the child is at risk, they should take whatever steps necessary to protect that child from danger. If the risks are caused by the child's own behaviour, hearings may also need to take into account the protection of other people. A useful tool for panel members in determining what strengths and pressures there are in the child's life is referring to the 'My World Triangle' and the 'SHANARRI' framework. See Child, Family and Society.