Taking the views of children into consideration is a key principle
across a range of social care policy and practice guidelines, and
should be fundamental to the provision of all services for
children. But what happens when services are intended to support
both a child and their family, such as in the case of short-break
services? Is the principle of a child-centred service always
Short-break services generally involve a disabled youngster being
cared for outside their own home by a support carer, for periods
ranging from a few hours to weekends or longer. In most cases, the
arrangement seems to be mutually beneficial for disabled children
and their families. For disabled children, short-breaks can offer a
fun time away from their families and the opportunity to develop
wider social networks and engage in different activities in a
friendly environment. For parents and siblings, short-breaks offer
a valuable breathing space.
But inevitably, sometimes the family’s need to have a break is
incompatible with the feelings or wishes of the child or young
person. And despite the commitment in policy and practice
guidelines to giving a child’s wishes a high priority when
providing services, evidence from recent research suggests that
this is not always the case.
As part of a larger study into short-break services, we interviewed
10 young people who use family-based short-break services.1
The young people were aged from nine to 16, and covered a wide
range on the learning difficulty spectrum, from “profound and
multiple learning difficulties” to being able to write about their
short-breaks in their school diaries.
Of the 10 youngsters interviewed, four were fairly positive about
their short-break care, four had negative views about it, and two
had more middling thoughts about their stays. Those with the most
positive views of their short-breaks said they went because they
wanted to, because they liked it there or because they needed a
rest from their family. They liked being with their short-break
carer and were happy there. One youngster said that she would be
“disappointed” if she did not go and another said “it’s good”.
Common to this positive group was that they had some say and a
degree of control over the arrangements. For example, they could
say if they didn’t want to go, or if they wanted to fit in an extra
By contrast, those with the most negative views about their
short-breaks said that they went because they were told to go, or
because it was for the benefit of their family (giving their mother
or father a rest, or allowing their parents to spend more time with
other family members). Significantly, this group of youngsters were
more likely to say that they had no one to talk to about their
short-breaks, and no one to tell if they did not want to go. Social
workers, or link workers from the short-break schemes, did not
feature as sources of support for these youngsters.
One of the biggest barriers to the more negative group seemed to be
the lack of someone willing to listen to them and understand their
point of view. Willingness to listen and to act on what disabled
young people say is at the heart of child-centred services.
As part of this, the findings suggest that ongoing appropriate
skills training for social care staff is needed if disabled
youngsters are to be able to communicate their views, wishes and
feelings. Communication methods used by young disabled people are
very varied, but given the right resources and support all of the
youngsters in this study, including those who were severely
disabled, were able to express their views.
Short breaks can give disabled children valuable opportunities to
develop their independence and meet new people. There is a need,
however, to ensure that schemes and professionals have appropriate
training to consult with children; that children have established
points of contact where their views can be heard; and that schemes
think creatively about how the needs of both the child and the
family can be met. Only when we do this can we make sure that
children take centre stage in service provision.
Pauline Heslop is a research fellow at Norah Fry Research
Centre, University of Bristol. For further information
For more on the research contact the Shared Care Network,
Units 63-66 Easton Business Centre, Felix Road, Bristol BS5 0HE.
Tel: 0117 941 5361 or e-mail: