Justine Ogle Stewart is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Northumbria and the Programme Leader for the BSc (Hons) Social Work programme. Justine qualified as a social worker in 1989, and worked as a children and family social worker and Senior Practitioner before moving into a Children’s Services Workforce Development Manager role. Justine’s research interests lie in children’s participation in child protection practice, and in multi -agency-safeguarding arrangements. Justine is a member of a local authority Safeguarding Children’s Partnership Board Learning and Improvement Group.

Whose voice? Exploring children and young people’s participation in the child protection conference

 Understanding  the lived  experience of children and  young  people in child protection  is an established  legal, moral  and practice imperative, promoted  through relationship based  practice and  assessment  models. Why is it  then, that in the child protection  conference  the  child’s lived  experience is  rarely  articulated  by the  child  in person, or represented  through  the  child’s own words?  Whose voice is most likely to be heard?

My recent PhD study sought to understand firstly  how  decisions over  attendance  were made, and secondly  how children’s  lived  experience  are  conveyed to the  conference  when  they  don’t  attend  in person. Decisions over  attendance  were  influenced  by assumptions based on  age and  capacity, with  social workers more likely to consider  attendance for children  aged  twelve and over. Social workers also acted in the child’s best interests to protect against seeing and hearing their parent(s) in an angry and upset emotional state. When young people had felt supported to attend, they identified some tangible benefits associated with emotional catharsis, personal growth and life skill development. 

Children who do not attend a child protection conference in person are reliant on others, namely the social worker to convey their views, wishes and feelings. Some younger children were considered too young to express a view. Some assessments were rich in narrative, others less so, and as one Independent Reviewing Officer said… ‘there are other cases where I feel like I’m not even sure if anyone has met this kid’. A consistent theme across all social work reports I had access to was the absence of the child’s authentic voice as a consequence of professional filtering and interpretation.

Strength based  approaches such as Signs of Safety (Turnell and Edwards,1999)  have given rise to  a range of  direct  work  tools  designed  to  facilitate communication  with children and  young  people. My research  highlighted  the  prevalence of The Three Houses tool (Weld,2008) as a default  approach  for ascertaining  wishes and feelings, used across  the  age  ranges, but  with limited  evidence of analysis and contribution towards safety planning. There were some excellent examples of innovative and creative use of tools, however there also examples of work that represented little more than a colouring in exercise.

My  research findings question the extent to which  contemporary  risk assessment approaches  have  advanced the participation  agenda for  children and  young people  who are  the focus of child protection conferences. Upholding participation rights in the child protection arena requires social workers to think differently about their relationships with children and young people. We need more conversations. Conversations that challenge assumptions of childhood that position the child as too young or too vulnerable. Conversations that challenge our assumptions of what is means to see, to hear a child’s voice, and to convey this as an authentic voice. Finally, we need conversations that challenge our understanding of child -directed practice. Let us not reduce participation to a colouring in exercise.

 

References

Turnell, A and Edwards, S. (1999) Signs of Safety: a Solution and Safety Orientated Approach to Child Protection Casework. London W.W. Norton and Company.

Weld, N. (2008) “The Three Houses Tool: Building Safety and Positive Change” in Calder, M.C (ed) Contemporary Risk Assessment in safeguarding Children London: Russell House Publishing.pp224-231.