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This essay aims to critically evaluate service user involvement specifically for looked after children (LAC). It explores evidence and research that considers the value of listening to the views of children who are looked after; regarding decisions about the care and support they receive. It considers how Leicester City council’s procedures enable young people to contribute in decision-making about their care and support, whilst considering any barriers which may hinder effective participation. It also looks at how my work can support this view, whilst considering local and national legislative policies and theoretical frameworks to enhance participation of children and young people to develop care services.
Evidence-based social care is a conscientious, explicit and judicious use of evidence in making decisions about the care of children, which is based on skills which allow a social worker to evaluate personal experience and external evidence in a systematic and objective manner (Sackett et al 1997, cited in Smith, 2004:8). Evidence-based approach to decision-making needs to be transparent, accountable and based on consideration of the most compelling evidence. This means adopting an ethical obligation to justify claims to expertise, being transparency with service users about decision-making and how these are formulated. By placing the children’s interests first, an evidence-based social worker may adopt a lifelong learning that involves continually posing specific questions (hypothesis) whilst, searching objectively and efficiently for the current best practice (Gibbs, 2003).
Evidence-based approach implies, among other things, the application of the best current evidence, the value of empirically based research findings, the requirement of critical approach for assessment and theories which support evidence informed practice. Therefore, the use of research and evidence to enhance transparency for service users and stakeholders may increase objectivity and fairness in decision-making process. This may increase confidence in the quality of debate around decisions, and lead to effective outcomes for service uses, thereby increasing credibility of services as well as supporting professional development for social workers.
Evidence and research finding in participation of LAC in decision-making and developing care services
The term ‘participation’ is a broad and multi-layered concept used to describe many different processes. It covers the level, focus and content of decision-making as well as the nature of the participatory activity, frequency and duration of participation and children participation (Kirby et al., 2003). The level and nature of participation may vary. It may mean merely taking part, being present, being involved or consulted in decision-making or a transfer of power in order for the views of participants to have an influence on decisions (Boyden and Ennew, 1997). The focus of children’s participation also varies, with the participation of children and young people in matters which affect them as individuals and as a group (Franklin and Sloper, 2004:4).
The participation of children and young people in decisions that affect them as individuals means taking into account their wishes, feelings and their perspectives. Procedures such as, assessment, care planning and LAC review meetings, child protection conferences or complaints are there to achieve this. The Children Act 1989 provides assessment for greater involvement of children and young people in decision-making. The participation of children in matters relating to them as a group can be through local and national identification, development, provision, monitoring or evaluation of services and policies (Franklin and Sloper, 2004:5). This may be achieved through consultation exercises and research, involvement of children and young people in management committees, advisory groups, youth forums, partnerships and community initiatives or in the delivery of community services by acting as mentors, counsellors, volunteers or workers (Sinclair and Franklin, 2000).
Research and evidence suggest that children and young people should be involved in making decisions that affect them. This is reflected in law, government guidance as well as in various regulations and policies. Increasingly, children are identified as a group in their own right. In 1991, the UK ratified the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (“Child Convention”), which grants children and young people the rights to participate in decision-making. Article 12 of the Child Convention provides that “Children have the right to say what they think should happen when adults are making decisions that affect them, and to have their opinions taken into account.” This may not necessarily mean that children and young people should directly make those decisions, rather that adults involve them in the decision-making process. The Care Standards Act 2000 highlights the importance of children’s participation in decision-making.
Looked after children are entitled and should be encouraged to participate in the decision making-process. Policy documents and research relating to services for LAC and young people indicate the importance of their participation in decision-making both in policy-making as well as in practice. Research studies have emphasised the value of engaging with the perspectives of LAC (Thomas and Beckford, 1999; O’Quigley, 2000). New initiatives from the Government such as the LAC Materials, Quality Protects, the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families, the Common Assessment Framework as well as other associated practice guides and non-governmental organisations have carried the same message (Jackson and Kilroe, 1996; Department of Health et al, 2000; Department of Health, 2002; Department for Education and Skills, 2004; Jenkins and Tudor, 1999; Horwath, 2000; British Association of Social Workers, 2003). Standard textbooks on social work with children and families as well as specialist texts on particular areas of practice have emphasised not only the desirability of listening to LAC but also in many cases their right to inclusion (Brandon et al, 1998; Butler and Roberts, 1997, Gilligan, 2001; Wheal, 2002).
Evidence and research are implemented in practice, particularly in the agencies that actually look after children and young people, the decision-making processes involving looked after children and in interactions between those children and adults. However, some indication may also be gained from social workers directly involved in interpreting evidence and research findings and applying them into their practice (Thomas, 2005). This can be evaluated in terms of looking at the organisation’s policies and procedures for looked after children in decision-making process, involving LAC to give advice of how to include them with planning and review meetings and service planning, such as supporting them to access independent advocacy, and give them opportunities to meet together, meet with their friends, and support their voice, for example to make complaints and to include their views when writing and recording decisions about them.
However, social worker may be described as making significant efforts to listen to children and young people, but the children and young people may necessarily feel that their voices are being heard. A study has found that whereas adults see “listening” in terms of paying respectful attention to what children and young people have to say, children and young people feel that “listening” is demonstrated by the delivery of services that accord with their expressed wishes (McLeod, 2006). Also, whilst adults regard the role of social worker as providing emotional support and therapeutic intervention, many children and young people regard their role as providing practical support combined with promotion of their self-determination (McLeod, 2006). These findings have implications for childcare social work.
Participation of LAC in decision-making in Leicester City Council
Leicester City Council’s policy and guidance emphasise on the importance to involve children in the decision-making process in line with their age and understanding. Staff, carers, parents and children are informed about this policy through handbooks, workshops and interagency training events. Parents are informed by social workers, either formal, informal or both. The Leicester City Council Young People’s Charter states that young people have the right to be listened to, have their view taken seriously and to be involved in decisions that affect them. Leicester City Council has also a Children and Young People’s Strategic Partnership (2007) which is committed to involve and consult as many children, young people and their families as possible. The aim of this participation strategy is to enable children, young people and families to participate in decision-making process, service review and delivery as well as to influence policies and decisions that affect them.
Leicester City Council has a policy which actively promotes the involvement of LAC in planning and review meetings. As a department, it has legal responsibilities as corporate parents. The policy encourages LAC to attend any meeting where their Care Plan will be discussed and decision made about their lives. However, some children or young people I have been working with feel that whether or not they attend the LAC planning and review meetings does not really make a difference because they consider those meetings to be merely procedural. A study has found that many children and young people find the review meetings as still “alienating, uncomfortable, negative and boring” process (Voice for the Child in Care, 2004, 51). The decision-making process may prioritise the best interests of the child, which may not necessarily represent what the child may consider to be his/her best interest on his/her own world.
Planning and review meetings for LAC are chaired by an independent person, who has a duty to ensure that the views and feelings of children and young people are taken into account. However decision has to be made procedurally to meet the goals of the local authority, which may not take into account the needs of the child.
Leicester City Council promotes the use of independent advocacy services for LAC, and makes provisions with representation when they make complaints. Leicester City Council’s Children Rights and Participation Services works independently to ensure that children and young people participate in decision-making that affect them and that they are fully represented in their complaints. However, the independence of this Service may be questionable. The head of the Service is responsible to the head of Safeguarding Services Department who is also responsible to the Director of Children Services, who may influence the Department in performing its functions. Leicester City Council provides opportunities for LAC to meet together. This is done through a Children Forum within the organisation which organises different activities, such as dramas, role plays, and singing to enable them to express their feelings. The Children Forum also has a looked after children football team led by a youth worker who is attached to the LAC Services.
Leicester City Council has policy guidance which requires prior permission from children to stay with friends overnight. However, there can be conflicts of interests when considering Frazer/Gillick competence of young people’s voices. Firstly, the process of performing checks may take time as it involves collecting information relating to the host, some of which may not be available before the proposed date of visit. This delay may cause the child or young person to feel that his/her wishes are not being considered and may also raise the child’s level of anxiety.
Secondly, young persons from another authority without checking requirements may be placed in the same placement with those from Leicester City Council. Those from Leicester City Council might feel not only that there are double standards, but they may also lose their trust to the social worker involved in granting the permission. Children who have taken part in research meetings have resented that their ordinary social contacts were obstructed by requirements to get a special permission, or even police clearance, before they could stay overnight with their friends, and wanted their carers to be able to make these decisions unimpeded (Thomas and O’Kane, 1998).
As a social worker, it therefore, important to be aware of legislative and guidance requirements of participation as well as understand the benefits of participation. As Kirby et al (2003) pointed out the fact that participation is part of the law or a public policy is not enough to convince social workers to engage in the work of children and young people. However, there are obstacles to the inclusion of LAC and young people in decision-making process. These include the lack of staff and time caused by high case loads and other demands such as child protection work, court reports, and core assessments. There is also a lack of a common understanding of participation and this can be confusing for a social worker when working with other agencies with different understandings. Also, it may not cost a penny to listen to children and young people, but it cost money to ensure a development of an effective participation (Kirby, 2003). Organisations rarely dedicate a budget for participation (Cutler and Taylor, 2003).
The notion of children’s participation in decision-making pertains to all children as a social group. However, historically, children’s participation has tended to focus on children in need. As a result, children’s participation has often been associated with forms of multiple disadvantage and social exclusion. LAC falls into the category of marginalised groups of children and young people. Young People with difficult life experiences are likely to have less confidence and self-esteem to participate in decision-making. For those who had their views and feelings not taken into account in the past, they are likely to be less motivated to participate in LAC planning and review meetings. If the past difficult experiences resulted from mistreatment by adults, they are likely not to trust the current adults’ intentions to engage them in participation. LAC may be subject to negative assumptions and stereotypes which may affect their full participation in decisions making (McNeish, 1999).
Enhancing the participation of LAC in decision-making
It is a good practice for carers to be empowered to make decisions for LAC wanting to stay with friends overnight, provided that they are able to assess the situation and make those decisions as if they were their own biological children. There should be a policy that explicitly allows for delegation to carers. For example, the Welsh Assembly Government has issued a guidance which makes it clear that criminal records checks should not be sought before an overnight stay, that decisions should in most circumstances be delegated to foster parents and residential care staff, and that “looked after children should as far as possible be granted the same permissions to take part in such acceptable age appropriate peer activities as would reasonably be granted by the parents of their peers (National Assembly for Wales Circular NAFWC 50/2004).
Planning and review meetings should be chaired by a totally independent person, not someone employed by Leicester City council. One may argue that this may cause tension between independence provided by an outside Chair and the risk of alienating the child by having a stranger at their review. However, a chair coming within the organisation may not be fully independent as s/he may also be under a duty to promote the vision and goals of the organisation which may conflict with his/her role.
There is a need for an effective definition of participation which encompasses an understanding of participation as an activity and as a process aiming at achieving positive outcomes for LAC, young people and organisations. Establishing a shared definition of participation can be a challenge, but once identified, it can benefit the organisations in terms of being consistence in the participation of children and young people in decision-making. There is a need for participation work to be adequately resourced in a long term basis as this will enable change (Robson, et al, 2003). Alternatively, the current budget should ensure that it is resourced to the participation of children and young people, particularly LAC.
Maybe consideration to the times of day for young people should be taking into account, when holding review meetings, and not having as many people attending, which could be intimidating. Perhaps the local authority could consider using text messages or social networks to get real feedback about the views of young people. Perhaps to work in a more child centred way the process of participation may have more meaning to the child or young person, rather than being a process driven exercise.
There is plenty evidence and research findings on participation of LAC in decision-making and developing care services. They range from legislation, participation guidance, researches to academic works. All these influence social workers in practice. Leicester City Council attaches importance to the participation of LFC in decision-making. Nonetheless, participation of LAC means that children should be actively involved in the decision-making that affects them; and the adults who have the responsibility for these children should ensure that their views and wishes are listened to and represented in decision-making.
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