I’ll complain the way I want

Children’s charity NCH runs many residential projects for
children and young people throughout the UK. These include
independent living centres for young people leaving care, a unit
for young women who are pregnant or who have young babies,
residential schools and respite care short-breaks projects for
children or young people with a disability or special needs.

The importance of accessible, responsive complaints procedures for
children has been long recognised, and there is concern about the
relatively small numbers of children and young people who choose to
make a complaint under the provisions set out in the Children Act
1989. But a survey1 conducted last year by NCH among its
residential service users (aged between nine and 22) reveals that
their views on complaints often challenge established adult ideas
about best practice.

As well as asking young people about their own experiences, the
survey asked them to advise on a variety of fictional scenarios
concerning problems in residential settings. These ranged from not
being given a choice of food to being hit by a member of

Most young people rejected the idea of talking to a senior manager,
someone independent or even an advocate to help address their
complaint. They could see the point of these roles – and some
described them as part of a good complaints system – but they did
not consider them as people they would contact themselves. Indeed,
the involvement of strangers appears likely to be a barrier to
young people wishing to raise a concern.

Almost all respondents emphasised the importance of talking to
someone they already know well about a problem. For more than seven
out of 10 this was their key worker or another member of staff but
for a sizeable minority, family, friends or social worker were also
important. We were concerned that only one in 10 said they would
talk to an advocate. But an important remedy would be for advocates
to ensure that they have opportunities to work with the “natural
allies” who are already in the young person’s life.

When asked how they would like someone to respond to their
complaint, six out of 10 said they would like to talk to someone
face-to-face, but writing, e-mail, text-messaging, phone and using
symbols were also mentioned. Personal support was also important.
For example, one respondent asked for “someone I like to help me
write it down”.

Young people did not necessarily distinguish between making a
complaint and telling someone about a problem; with both there was
a common expectation that the adult informed would put things
right. When asked to advise on a serious problem, only half of the
respondents recommended “make a complaint”, with the other main
response being “tell a member of staff or the manager”. It is
important that expressions of concern or dissatisfaction are
recognised as complaints in themselves, and that we don’t insist on
young people having to say “I want to make a complaint”.

Most respondents were positive about their own experience of
complaints. However, a significant minority (16 per cent) felt that
“nothing got done”. In some cases, staff explained that they had
worked hard to address the complaint, but the outcome the young
person wanted had not been achieved. This group reported feeling
less confident about using the system, although only a very small
minority (3 per cent) said they would keep a problem entirely to
themselves, and no one said they would not know what to do.

Young people were also asked about how well they felt they got on
with staff in their placement, and how much involvement they had in
decisions. There was a correlation here, with those young people
reporting a high degree of confidence and trust in staff being the
ones most likely to have raised a complaint and to have had it
addressed to their satisfaction. It is important to remember that
young people who have not developed these relationships
-Êperhaps because they are new in the placement -Êmay
feel less able to raise concerns.

The research also underlined the need to make the complaints
procedure relevant to young people who have learning difficulties.
Project workers should help these young people to understand that
they should express concern, dissatisfaction or unhappiness to an
adult – through symbols, simple words, pictures or actions. It is
equally essential that staff are able to recognise these
expressions. The importance of staff observation, vigilance and
good contact with parents or carers are also important in these

The research recommendations (see panel) acknowledge the role of
residential staff in dealing with complaints. But this is not to
suggest that residential staff should be expected to handle
complaints on their own. It is important that those working most
closely with young people should be able to respond to their
problems, wherever possible -Êthis demonstrates that difficult
things can be addressed within everyday relationships, without the
presence of important or remote professionals. This model reflects
the way issues are dealt with in families.

That being said, complaints must also be approached in a structured
way, within set time scales, applying consistent guidance and
thorough recording, reporting and checking. Staff need training and
access to advice and support on handling complaints. Recourse to
both senior and independent people is an important safeguard and
must always be available. However, we need to recognise the
barriers that are likely to prevent young people from accessing
these direct. A complaints system needs to be one that is robust,
effective and accountable – but also one that young people find
accessible and will actually use.

Key messages from research   

Residential services need to: 

  • Acknowledge and support   the important role of residential
    staff in recognising and  responding to complaints.  
  • Ensure each young person has access to people of their choice,
    inside and outside of their placement, who could help them address
    problems and a choice of ways of communicating with them. 
  • Ensure each individual is able to express issues of
    dissatisfaction,  and to make themselves understood.  
  • Beware of overloading complaints situations with adult
    strangers. To quote a young  person who phoned me, from  300 miles
    away: “I don’t want to  talk to you about my complaint because I
    don’t know you.” 
  • Recognise that peers, friends, family and social workers can be
    important sources of advice  and support; ensure information   is
    available to inform them. 
  • Ensure young people get to  know their advocates. 
  • Ensure young people receive  full explanations and
    positive  feedback that reinforces their right to complain, even
    when their complaint is not upheld.   

Dory Dickson is participation and complaints manager at


Challenging Perspectives, NCH, 2003 from 

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