Children’s rights officers and advocates are in pole position when it comes to translating young people’s views into action, writes Steve Lowe
There are some wonderful examples at many local authorities of where a commitment to children’s rights has seen the voices of children and young people at the forefront of developing listening services. Some places have had to work harder at it and are improving in their ability to listen to children; others still are caving in to government pressure to have advocacy services and see them as an add-on or a necessary evil. In whichever organisation you find yourself it leads on to the questions: where does advocacy fit within a children’s rights service? Why does a local authority need a children’s rights officer (CRO) at all if it has an advocacy provider?
I was asked this recently and it made me realise that, 15 years after the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, eight years after the Human Rights Act 1998 and nearly 20 years since the appointment of England’s first children’s rights officer, social care agencies still feel the need to ask this question.
Don’t get me wrong: the culture of participation that this government has been so keen to encourage has resulted in more children and young people being involved in decisions that affect their personal, everyday lives. There is a statutory duty for local authorities to offer an advocate to children making, or intending to make, a complaint against them. All four UK countries have children’s commissioners. The Children and Family Courts Advisory and Support Service and the Commission for Social Care Inspection have children’s rights directors. Of the requirements for local authorities to have advocates available for children, there is a growth in the number of adults who are, ostensibly, championing the rights of children.
The danger of responding purely to the demands of legislation, however, have left me concerned that commissioning agencies are not asking themselves why they need a children’s rights officer. After my initial disappointment that a children’s services department undergoing “redesign” felt it needed to ask me this question I was actually pleased; perhaps by asking the question and looking for honest answers there might be a meaningful role for the CRO at the end of it all.
In fact, now is the perfect time to ask. We are at the dawn of children’s trusts, the Welsh assembly government is encouraging a growth in advocacy to include all children, Every Child Matters and the national service framework encourage health and education providers to put children at the centre of their practice and safeguarding children is set to become everybody’s responsibility. So where do children’s rights and CROs fit into all of this?
Recent research into the future of advocacy is clear that CROs have to be agents for systemic and causal change within organisations. Issue-based advocacy can effect change for individual children and young people, but the children’s rights agenda and compliance with the UN convention demand a link between individual examples of breaches of human rights and changes to policy and practice.
It is not unusual that the lives and deaths of individual children lead to wholesale changes in social care. From Maria Colwell to the victims of the Soham murders, they have led to changes to whole systems in an attempt to further protect children.
CROs have the ability to effect local change without the need for personal tragedy. My organisation, Children’s Rights Officers and Advocates, believes that independent advocacy for looked-after children, children in need, children from asylum-seeking families and those involved in the juvenile justice system can identify the children’s rights issues that need to be acted on. The independence of these services is crucial to instilling confidence in children that their views are represented without the demands of best interests and adult interpretation.
To make systemic change CROs need to be the link between the independent view and the policymakers. This is best done within children’s trusts at a level of strategy and influence. There might be a formal link between CROs and advocacy providers. Alternatively the CRO might not be employed by the local authority directly but has to be an in-built part of corporate parenting structures.
In practice, it might be that an organisation has a children’s commissioner, a children’s champion or a key officer whose responsibility it is to make sure that rights issues are fed into systemic change. Obviously the long-term goal is to make sure that everybody takes responsibility for change rather than marginalising children’s rights by making it the bastion of the few. At present, however, CROs are already in place and can fulfil this role.
In social work practice, CROs can also be the conduit for the frustration of social work constraints, accessible outside the everyday line management structures and bringing transparency to the practice of the organisation. This also begs the question of whether social workers can be advocates or how social work practitioners can uphold the rights of children and young people they work for. There are times when a social worker will speak up for a child or young person, putting across their views to parents, carers or managers. Within the constraints of best interests and assessment, however, it is not uncommon for practitioners to feel that they have let children down or compromised their position in terms of directly representing the wishes and feelings of children. Increasingly, this is the case in child protection work as the Children Act 2004 introduces a specific duty to ascertain wishes and feelings of children in need and those involved in the child protection process.
Advocates and children’s right workers, however, can support workers in making sure that what the child says, in their own words, is not lost in either the safeguarding or court process. In addition, a children’s rights officer can take the themes that workers raise and make sure that a rights compliant, child-centred organisation effects changes that make a lasting difference to the lives of the young people we work for.
This, then, is the best answer I can find for having a CRO. But alongside this there needs to be a commitment to children’s rights from individual practitioners through to elected members, the chair of local safeguarding boards and directors of children’s services. Research shows that children and young people value being listened to but, at present, get more from the process than from the outcomes. In a climate of change and of performance indicators, the role of CROs is pivotal in ensuring these views are heard and acted upon.
The extension of children’s services to include all children cannot afford to leave the vulnerable and the disenfranchised to one side. Rather, ensuring their rights are respected must be the starting point for upholding the rights of all children. This is why we need CROs. The next time somebody asks me the question I’ll be more than pleased to answer as long as they listen.
Steve Lowe is the national development manager for CROA (Children’s Rights Officers and Advocates), a national umbrella organisation for children’s rights, advocacy and participation workers. He has been a children’s rights officer, service manager and social worker in Derbyshire as well as a project worker for young people’s sexual health.
Training and learning
The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.
Children’s rights, advocacy and participation in the field of children’s social care are the keystones for the involvement of children and young people in decisions about their lives. The challenge in contemporary social care is making sure that what children and young people tell us is translated into meaningful change to services. This article looks at the role of children’s rights workers, practitioners and children’s champions in bringing about lasting change for children.
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