When working with children or young people, it’s essential to get a clear picture of their wishes, thoughts, and feelings. It’s good practice to ask the child or young person which practitioner they’d like to work with for this.
What do we mean by ‘the child’s voice’?
‘The child’s voice’ not only refers to what children say directly, but also to many other aspects of their presentation. It means listening to them, and seeing their experiences from their point of view.
Why is the child’s voice important?
Child-focussed work means:
- children feel listened to
- plans are more successful when they are involved
- prompt decisions are made about safeguarding when necessary
Local and national reviews have found that in many cases:
- the child was not seen frequently enough by the professionals involved, nor were they asked about their views or feelings
- agencies did not listen to adults who tried to speak on behalf of the child and who had important information to contribute
- parents and carers stopped practitioners from seeing and listening to the child
- practitioners focused too much on the needs of the parents or adults, especially vulnerable adults, and overlooked the implications for the child
- agencies did not interpret their findings well enough to protect the child
- the right of a child or young person to be heard is included in the UN Convention of Rights
- the Children’s Act 2004 emphasises the importance of speaking to the child or young person as part of any assessment
- the importance of speaking to a child or young person and gathering their views has been consistently highlighted in lessons learned from Serious Case Reviews
What should practitioners do?
There are lots of ways to make sure records include a strong sense of what life is like for an individual child at a particular time:
1. Talk to the child about their life, likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams, worries and fears.
Talking to children depends on their age and level of understanding. If children are able to talk, there are a variety of ways of hearing their voice through direct work techniques like ‘Signs of Safety’. Record what children say in direct quotes (for example, ‘I feel sad/happy/worried when…’) as this is more powerful than something interpreted by a practitioner.
2. Children must be spoken to alone, as they may be unable to talk honestly about their experiences in front of their parent or carer.
3. Think about the location – children may feel more able to speak if they’re in a safe, neutral setting.
4. Even if children are too young to speak, it’s still essential that workers give a sense of what life is like for them. This can be done in a variety of ways, including:
- describing their presentation
- describing how others interact with them and how they respond
- commenting on whether you think they’re functioning at a developmentally-appropriate level
5. Children may have ways of ‘speaking’ other than verbal speech, like Makaton or signs and symbols – be creative.
Encourage children to draw or write about themselves and their lives. Use a range of ideas. Start off non-specific, for example, draw your favourite food or favourite pop star. Then be more directive, for example, draw where you live, who lives there; draw a picture of a happy day, a sad day; what do you wish was different; who is special, etc.
6. Describe a child’s physical appearance: do they appear thin, pale, listless, with dark shadows under their eyes, or do they appear curious, smiley, active?
7. Observe the interactions between a child and their parents or carers – is there any difference in their interactions with other people?
8. Describe the child’s interactions with professionals:
- what is your hypothesis about this behaviour?
- does the child appear relaxed, wary, or overly familiar?
- does the child respond as you would expect a child to respond in that situation?
9. Make sure you include the views of other significant people in the child’s life who may have contributions to make about their experiences.
For example – grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, neighbours, teachers. Research has found these people often have a unique insight into the lives of children, yet their views are given less weight than those of professionals.
10. Include the views of fathers – they may have useful information to share, even if there are concerns about them.
11. Use independent advocates to get children’s views, as sometimes they can bring valuable context to children’s experiences.
12. Encourage children to get involved in plans drawn up about them. They can do this directly, by attending meetings, or contribute by putting something in writing or drawing a picture, or giving someone a ‘message’ from them.
Gillick competencies and Fraser guidelines
When talking about consenting to medical treatment, the terms ‘Gillick competence’ and ‘Fraser guidelines’ are often used interchangeably, but there’s actually a clear difference between them.
Gillick competence is concerned with deciding a child’s capacity to consent.
Fraser guidelines are used specifically to decide if a child can consent to contraceptive or sexual health advice and treatment.
The CQC have published a ‘myth-buster’ to explain the principles, laws, and guidelines used when assessing a child’s ability to make decisions about their treatment, as well as the differences between Gillick competence and Fraser guidelines. Read the CQC mythbuster: Gillick competency and Fraser guidelines.
The NSPCC have published a guide to Gillick competency and Fraser guidelines. This is to help people who work with children to balance the need to listen to the child’s wishes with their professional responsibility to keep them safe. Read the NSPCC Gillick competency and Fraser guidelines guide.
Help-seeking behaviour is a fundamental skill for all children. It’s something children and young people learn through their early attachment relationships, and through their contact with adults over time. It’s a developmental skill which is essential for survival, and needs support to develop. Early experiences of adversity and abuse can have a negative effect.
Practitioners recognising, responding to, and validating the help-seeking behaviour of children and young people is essential.
Public inquiries, research, inspections, and SCRs/CSPRs have highlighted the way in which children can become invisible to practitioners in their safeguarding work. This is in spite of there being a legislative framework which make it clear that children should be fully involved in decisions about their lives, and professionals should routinely look for evidence of the child’s understanding of their circumstances.
Research highlights that there are many barriers to children and young people asking practitioners for help, and talking about their worries and concerns so they can be addressed.
Children and young people also report that when they do ask for help, they’re often not heard or their worries are not acted on. A recent report by the Children’s Commissioner found that only 1 in 8 victims of abuse felt able to ask for help.
If children are not responded to appropriately by practitioners, and their concerns are not listened to or addressed, this is likely to impact on their self-esteem and resilience, their short and long term developmental outcomes, and their ability to seek help about things which are worrying them.