Promoting children’s participation and voice across the globe

By Michelle Lefevre

World Social Work day seems an appropriate time for social workers everywhere to consider how they are promoting the principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Ratified by most governments around the world, this sets out the basic human rights to which all children should be entitled and should have central relevance to social work practice with children and their families/carers wherever they are in the world.  Indeed the influence of the UNCRC can be seen across policy, law and practice guidance for social work in England where I am located.  Article 12 states unequivocally that children have a right to express their own opinions and to have them taken into account in any matter which affects them.  This principle underpins the Children Act 2004’s requirement for social workers to ascertain the wishes and feelings of children who might be in need of services, protection, or the involvement of the courts.   Children’s right to freedom of expression and to receive information is defined in Article 13.  This indicates the need for a child-centred philosophy of practice, in which social workers should provide information to children in ways which make sense to them and provide a facilitating environment which helps them reflect on, process and convey issues of concern to them.

However, the extent to which these principles are embodied within actual practice is in question.  In England, the amount and quality of social workers’ direct engagements and interactions with children and young people has provoked particular disquiet.  Serious case reviews and public inquiries, such as those into the tragic deaths of Victoria Climbie and Khyra Ishaq, suggest that the dire nature of these children’s circumstances might have been better understood had social workers managed to engage them in direct conversations away from those who posed risks to them. Research studies and consultations, such as those by the Children’s Rights Director for England, uncover how children in foster or residential care can be left feeling confused and that they do not matter when professionals do not spend time building relationships of trust with them, explaining complex matters and helping them confide their concerns.

In England it is likely that some of these deficiencies in practice stem from the too busy caseloads and overly bureaucratised context for current practice recently uncovered by the Social Work Task Force and Eileen Munro’s review of Child Protection.  However, research studies from a number of countries, such as a comparison of Australia and Norway, suggest that problems such as the marginalisation of children’s involvement in decision making are more widely experienced.  This suggests that at least some of the factors which interfere with effective dialogue and relationship-building between children and their social workers are more universal in nature.  For example, social workers are often speaking about traumatic and unsettling matters with children who have been abused, neglected or displaced.  Such conversations are unlikely ever to be easy and children may be more likely to convey their wishes and feelings about important issues via indirect means, such as through their play or body-language, rather than in clear and coherent verbal or written form.

Social work education globally has a central role here in helping prepare students in training for the complex and demanding nature of this work.  While we can be clear about what qualities and skills children need their social workers to embody, such as consideration, warmth, empathy, respect, and child-centredness, we still need to understand more about how best to help students develop these for the variety of social work roles and tasks across the globe and to consider how methods and approaches need to be adapted for different contexts and cultures.  By increasing knowledge about this we might become more confident that our profession is equipped to meet the aspirations of the UNCRC.


March 7, 2012. Tags: . World Social Work Day.

One Comment

  1. cath0404 replied:

    Reading Michelle’s post and thinking about ‘rights’ more generally I am struck once more by how little outrage there seems to have been within UK social work about the legal aid changes proposed in current legislative reforms (it was only this last week that legal aid for immigration appeal was said to be unnecessary as those hearings are ‘not complex’). Although it seems that the concerns about funding for domestic violence cases are to some extent allayed, there are some serious changes being proposed in respect of things that within the UK we have come to take for granted. If there is no right to legal aid for immigration appeals, what is the real impact upon those who are then often separated from their family and support networks and are yet denied a right to legal guidance and representation in a process that I am sure many of us would find daunting, even if the setting and process was reasonably familiar.
    Only this morning I observed a Social Security tribunal where a claimant was seeking to have a refusal of Disability Living Allowance overturned. She was very familiar with her medical condition and the ‘rules’ of the tribunal and yet still struggled to make sense of the outcome. How much harder for those facing an immigration appeal tribunal given the recognition within legal practice that immigration is a complex area of law? The claimant said to me afterwards that all she really wanted was a meaningful explanation and someone to show her how to manage. Again, a basic human need for a relationship lased approach rather than a technical-legal approach?
    Much to think about on global and local terms, and particularly where the two intersect.

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