Not listening to Children? Individual Bad Practice or a Confusing System!

I have been a children’s advocate for many years and have represented children where there have been child protection concerns as well as children living within the care system.

As a children’s advocate my role is to ensure that practitioners understand the views of the child, as well as ensuring their rights are respected. This can take place in a number of ways such as individually with the child and the professional, or at multi-agency meetings such as a child protection conference or child in care review. What concerned me from these experiences, and indeed from the 9 years I undertook research on this topic as NSPCC Senior Research Fellow at Warwick University, was that professionals had a reluctance to listen to children and young people directly or indeed to inform them about relevant matters. Initially the reluctance to my research focus by professionals was that asking children about such experiences was abusive and children needed to be protected from this. Arguably therefore children did not have a voice and so their rights to have a voice and to be informed of matters that concerned them, were negated.

In 1991, The Children Act 1989 came into force and in the same year the UK ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), an international treaty that grants all children a comprehensive set of rights. Article 12 of the UNCRC declares that “Every child has the right to express their views, feelings and wishes in all matters affecting them, and to have their views considered and taken seriously”. Such an Article should influence practice although it must be acknowledged that whilst we have signed up to this Convention, we have not yet included it into domestic law and so arguably is not enforceable.

In 2000, eight year old Victoria Climbie died following severe abuse. The Serious Case Review and the 2003 Inquiry by Lord Laming both highlighted that although numerous professionals and practitioners were involved in her case, none thought it necessary to get her an interpreter as she did not speak English, in order to listen to her views.

The Children Act 2004, followed and did introduce a broader focus on protecting children, the Safeguarding agenda, with an emphasis upon prevention and early intervention, and S53 of The Children Act 2004, amended The Children Act 1989, by placing a legal duty on local authorities to ascertain the child’s wishes and feelings.

However, since then Ofsted have undertaken a number of collective reviews of Serious Case Reviews, such as that from April 2007 to March 2008 which highlighted ‘the failure of all professionals to see the situation from the child’s perspective and experience; to see and speak to the children; to listen to what they said, to observe how they were and to take serious account of their views in supporting their needs as probably the single most consistent failure in safeguarding work with children’ as recorded in Working Together To Safeguard Children 2010:33. And in 2011 Professor Eileen Munro published The Munro Review of Child Protection: Final Report calling for reform by way of a child-centred system, ‘recognising children and young people as individuals with rights, including their right to participate in major decisions…’ 2011:24.

Despite the above, in 2012 Daniel Pelka died following abuse and his case had numerous similarities to the case of Victoria Climbie, in that Daniel did not speak English and although a number of professionals had contact with him, no one organised an interpreter so that he could have a voice. Ironically, the criminal trial that followed Daniel’s death had to ensure that interpreters were present, and that documents were written in both English and Polish so as to ensure those accused of his murder had their rights upheld.

The Children Act 2004 led to the introduction of new statutory guidance for practitioners on how to work to safeguard children. Entitled, Working Together to Safeguard Children, (WTTSC) this statutory guidance first appeared in 2006, then updated by the various governments in 2010, 2013, 2015 and now the latest version is 2018.

This statutory guidance makes it clear that ‘Safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility’ and so all those working with children, not just professionals but all practitioners, whether employed or working voluntarily, need to be aware of any safeguarding concerns. Another, additional piece of statutory guidance specifically for practitioners involved in education is Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) has also since been introduced. The updated version was published in 2019. However, the two key principles in both documents have stayed the same for some years: (1) Safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility and (2) practitioners should have ‘a child-centred approach’.

The second principle – that practitioners should have a child-centred approach – has been defined differently in different versions of the documents. These different definitions perhaps reflect the different ideologies of the governments which wrote them. Both the 2013 (p8) and 2015 (p9) versions of WTTSC say, “a child-centred approach: for services to be effective they should be based on a clear understanding of the needs and the views of children”. This definition is clear about imposing a duty on practitioners to ensure they listen to children. As such this definition is to be welcomed since it gives children a right to have their voice and opinions recognised.

However, in the latest 2018 version of WTTSC the definition of a child-centred approach has changed. It states: “A child centred approach means keeping the child in focus when making decisions about their lives and working in partnership with them and their families” p8. This definition does not specifically state that practitioners should to listen to children, and seems to assume that children and parents may hold the same views. Arguably this new definition might instead lead to a more traditional – and traditionally conservative – ‘parents know best’ approach.

However, presuming that parents will speak for their children does ignore the lessons of the Serious Case Reviews dealing with the murders of Khyra Ishaq in 2008 and, as discussed above, Daniel Pelka in 2012. In both cases, the children’s parents were starving them, and although the professionals were concerned about the children, they discussed their concerns with the parents, and failed to listen directly to the children themselves. They did not give them a voice. It is not enough to take the parents’ word, because, as in these cases, the parents may be the ones perpetrating the abuse.

The 2019 version of Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) also refers to the two principles above but offers another different definition of ‘child centred’ stating that practitioners should consider, at all times, “what is in the best interests of the child”. (p5). This definition also fails to specifically remind practitioners to listen to children, increasing the chances that they will fail to do so, and will make their decisions about children’s lives without children’s engagement. As such it is argued that both of these new definitions are ‘retrograde’ steps in both safeguarding children, and in enforcing a children’s right to have their voices heard, listened and responded to.

Mindful of this change in the definition of being ‘child-centred’, the following poem is included here to remind you, as current or future professionals/ practitioners, to consider your own practice when working with children and particularly where there may be safeguarding and child protection concerns, and to ensure that the child is able to speak to you directly and that you listen and act accordingly.

The poem is deliberately entitled ‘The Silenced Child’ rather than ‘The Silent Child’ as arguably it is the system, rather than the child themselves, that enforces the silence. This adult led process fails to give children a voice.

 

Maureen Winn-Oakley

Senior Lecturer in Working with Children, Young People and Families

 

The Silenced Child

 

I sit silently, my head bowed.

They talk around me and over me.

They know best.

After all they’re adults,

So, they know best.

 

‘But’, I wonder,

‘How do they know what is best for me?

They do not know me,

They do not speak to me,

How can they know what is best for me?’

 

They smile and they nod,

They talk of how to keep me safe

To protect me

‘But how can they protect me,

When they do not know me?’

 

No one speaks to me,

And no one asks me to speak to them.

But I am here

Sitting close by them

Can’t they hear my silence!

 

‘And what if I did speak?

What if I used my voice, and spoke to them?

Would they listen?

Would they understand?

Would they start to know me?’

 

They stop speaking

They smile and they nod at each other

And they smile at me

‘It will be alright now’,

One of them says to me.

 

And one by one they leave.

And I am left sitting alone.

There is no-one talking

My voice is lost within me.

I sit silently, my head bowed.       (© MWO).

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