Minor problems

Imagine you have a serious problem. Who could help you sort it
out? When professor Hazel Genn asked adults this question they were
able to give more than 20 different answers ranging from their
family solicitor to their local Citizens’ Advice
Bureau.1 But who would the average scared child turn

In the 11-plus years since the UK ratified the UN Convention on
the Rights of the Child, our progress towards creating a
rights-based culture for children and young people has been patchy.
Perhaps one of the reasons for our lack of progress lies in the
failure to put into place adequate mechanisms to support children
and young people in claiming and enforcing their rights. We have no
statutory children’s rights commissioner for England, and
services that assist individual children and young people to claim
their rights are comparatively rare, and usually provided only to
specific groups of young people. Advocacy, for instance, is largely
provided for children in care.

Our direct work with children and young people identified a
number of significant themes, relevant not just to providers of
specialist advocacy and legal advice, but to anyone interested in
supporting children to claim or enforce their rights. We ran a
series of sessions with small groups of children, using enjoyable
creative activities to explore how they related to problems that an
adult would see as problems related to rights, or the law.

Firstly, it was clear that children and young people have an
immense capacity for independent problem-solving. When we asked the
children in our groups who they talk to when they need help solving
problems the majority of their answers were personal coping
strategies and were confidential, such as talking to God, writing
in a diary, or talking to safe strangers. One said: “I talk to old
ladies on the bus sometimes… you never have to see them

Friends were very important, particularly for older children.
One commented: “you choose who your friends are and you choose them
for a reason”. It was clear that almost all of the problems
encountered by the children in the groups were problems they solved
on their own, or with the help of their friends.

Even the youngest children in the groups (7-10 year olds) were
capable of giving highly technical solutions to problem scenarios.
One scenario involved a refugee family in poor housing. The group
advised the child (the sole English speaker) to help his parents to
complain to the council, contact a lawyer, and go for free language
classes at Learn Direct!

Overwhelmingly, children and young people preferred their family
members, particularly parents and carers, as problem-solving
helpers. “If your mum and dad can’t fix it, then you kind of
go down the list.” The only adult professionals who figured
strongly in their problem-solving landscape were everyday
professionals such as youth workers and teachers. The children in
the groups emphasised that it was the attitude of these adults, not
their technical skills, that made them positive sources of help and
support. One said of youth workers “they’re probably more in
touch with young people and know what you’re going

All of the children seemed to view relationships as the most
important thing in problem-solving. Not only was a positive
relationship with the helper important, but there was also a belief
that problems are both caused and solved by relationships and
communication. The most striking example of this was one
group’s response to a scenario where a teenager had been
thrown out of home. When asked “what should he do?” they replied
“but what’s the problem? What’s happened?”. The real
issue for them wasn’t where the teenager would live, but what
family problems had caused her to be homeless. The group wanted to
address their solutions to those family relationships.

As well as positive reasons for seeking support from family and
friends the sessions identified barriers to seeking professional
support. The children in the groups had very little information
about their rights or the services that might exist to support them
in solving problems. Only one of the children had any idea about
what an advocate might do, lawyers were seen as “not for children”,
and of the 30 participants, only one had heard of Connexions
personal advisers.

Equally striking was the children’s acceptance of the way
that society trivialises their problems. Violence and intimidation
was described as an ordinary part of life, and dismissed. “You
wouldn’t go to the police unless it was really serious,” was
a typical comment.

Finally, confidentiality was identified as a barrier to seeking
support. The preference for self or peer problem-solving was partly
related to confidentiality, and concerns about adult professionals
focused on fear about confidentiality and loss of control. One
said: “if it’s really serious they just put you into

So, how do we go about creating problem-solving support for

One of the clearest lessons from the Minor Problems? project was
that adults commonly fail to grasp the reality of children and
young people’s lives, and make assumptions about the kinds of
support they need. If we want a spectrum of problem-solving support
for children we have to work with them to design services that are
relevant to them.

It is equally clear that children and young people are capable
of dealing with many problems themselves or with the support of
peers and family members. This capacity should be built on by
supporting children and young people to develop their self and peer
advocacy skills and by ensuring that all children and young people
have access to opportunities to learn about their rights.
Mainstream services for children such as schools, Connexions, youth
services etc, can play a crucial role here, acting as places where
children and young people can acquire skills and information, and
bridging the gap between private problem-solving and access to
specialist services.

Finally, more accessible specialist services are required, based
on needs identified by children and young people, not areas of law
or service provision. These should be child-friendly, and work in a
way that respects relationships that are important to the children
and young people using them. They should have clear and accessible
information about how they work, particularly how they deal with
difficult confidentiality issues. Most of all, children and young
people should be able to choose an advocate or lawyer who is
child-friendly, and cares about them as well as about the outcome
of a dispute.

1 Hazel Genn, Paths to Justice: What
People Do and Think about Going to L
aw, Hart,

Nancy Kelley is programme director, Office of the
Children’s Rights Commissioner for London

The Project

In March 2002, the Office of the Children’s Rights
Commissioner for London began a project exploring the kinds of
advocacy and legal services

children and young people might need if they are to be active
rights holders. Our aim was to focus on the perspectives of
children and young people, building an idea of their
problem-solving landscape, and then use this as the basis for
thinking about how advocacy and legal services could be developed
to meet their needs. The concluding report1 sets out the findings
from our research alongside detailed recommendations for
government, funders and commissioners as well as existing advocacy
and legal services.

Minor Problems? The
Future of Advocacy and Legal Services for Children and Young
, Office of the Childrens Rights Commissioner for
London, 2002 e-mail:




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