Seen but not heard

Although they are seen as important,
children’s rights services in London are held back by scarce
resources, bureaucracy and the tenet that the adult is always
right, says researcher Lorna Clarke-Jones

Children’s rights have been buzzwords in the
past 10 years, but research by the Social Science Research Unit
shows that only 12 of the 33 London local authorities have
children’s rights services.1

The strategy published by the government’s
children and young people’s unit last November may reveal a
landmark change in government thinking. This states that “children
and young people should have opportunities to play an effective
role in the design and delivery of policies and

The research, based on interviews with
children’s rights officers, focus groups with young people leaving
care and a survey of local authorities, examined the picture of
children’s rights provision in London. Children’s rights services
remain the exception rather than the norm, and often struggle
against hostile attitudes, bureaucratic structures and scarce

Children’s rights services are unique models
combining advocacy for looked-after children and children in need,
with participatory approaches. These empower children to take part
in decisions that affect them and assert their rights.

Participatory approaches include groups for
young people to meet and support each other. They would meet senior
social services managers, speak at conferences, sit on local
authority committees and involve themselves in consultations. There
is a move towards these services being independent from local
authority structures and supported by partnership funding from
local authorities and voluntary organisations.

The development of these services can be
placed in the context of growing international pressure for
independent human rights institutions for children, and the United
Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), ratified by
the UK in 1991. The children’s rights services in London are based
on the principles of the CRC, in particular Article 12, which says
that children have the right to express their views and have them
taken seriously.

Of the 33 London authorities, our survey found
just 12 with children’s rights services, although a few were
subscribing to London-wide advocacy services. Authorities noted
other types of children’s rights provision, such as “information in
draft regarding children’s rights” and “a drop-in centre for care
leavers” and “independent visitors schemes”, but few had staff with
dedicated responsibility for children’s rights.

It was agreed by those interviewed that
children’s rights services are valuable. One officer said that,
despite the efforts of local authorities, children still became
lost in the process, “their voices obliterated by the overriding
concerns of adults”. Bureaucratic systems and limited resources of
local authorities were offered as reasons, along with wrong
attitudes to children and young people. Young people we spoke to
noted the disproportionate number of “faceless individuals” in
social services who had access to their records. Children’s rights
officers also reported that senior managers evaded the issue when
they did not invite children or children’s rights officers to
policy meetings. In response to all this, one officer said:
“Historically our society is built on the view that the adult is
right – we are saying look at it from a different angle.”

The London-wide picture of children’s rights
provision remains patchy. Only a few London authorities offer
specific children’s rights services or have staff with dedicated
responsibility for them.

The national organisation Children’s Rights
Officers and Advocates launched a development project in 1999 to
help local authorities in England and Wales develop effective
children’s rights and advocacy services3. But much
remains to be done.

We found that, regardless of the isolation of
children’s rights services, the officers were committed. One said:
“I see myself as a shop steward for children.”

The need for a more consistent strategy is
clear. A theme that arose from interviews with children’s rights
officers was the need for the profile of children’s rights to be
raised. There was widespread enthusiasm about the idea of an
independent children’s rights commissioner for both London and
England to confront the problems of inconsistent standards and cuts
in services.

Lorna Clarke-Jones is a research
officer and co-editor of An Evaluation of Children’s Rights in


1 P Alderson, L
Clarke-Jones, B Mayall, H Schaumberg, An Evaluation of the
Office of the Children’s Rights Commissioner for London, Stage
Social Science Research Unit, December 2001

2 Children and Young
People’s Unit, Strategy for Children and Young People,
Department for Education and Skills, November 2001

3 Children’s Rights
Officers and Advocates Annual Report, June 1999-July 2000

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