Discuss ways in which current legislation and policy in childcare contribute to or work against child-centred practice in social work - How do childrens rights issues impact on this debate?
Discuss ways in which current legislation and policy in childcare contribute to or work against ‘child-centred practice’ in social work. How do children’s rights issues impact on this debate?
The main principle of ‘child-centred practice’ is to set the welfare, rights and needs of the child as the primary focus when dealing with children and young people (hereafter referred to as ‘the child or ‘children’ for simplicity). This approach seeks to minimise the power imbalance between children and adults and to take account of the wishes, opinions and rights of the child to have an input in decisions which will impact on their lives. This approach is relevant from different professional perspectives, for example, health, education and social care. For the purposes of this essay I shall approach child-centred practice from a social work perspective. I will discuss the main policy and legislative frameworks and how these might be compatible with the concept of child centred practice and discuss some of the inconsistencies and difficulties in implementing child centred practice in social work practice, with particular reference to child protection issues.
There has been evidence in the past of the failure of social services to properly address issues of child centred practice and children’s rights issues and that this has had a derogatory effect on children, particularly ‘looked after’ children and children in need. The ‘Lost in Care’ Report of the Tribunal of Inquiry into the Abuse of Children in Care in the Former County Council Areas of Gwynedd and Clwyd since 1974 (Department of Health) looked into allegations of abuse of looked after children and how these allegations had been dealt with. The report found many instances where the rights of children had been disregarded; where children hadn’t been listened to and where no proper consultation had been carried out with children.
Kay (2001) argues that until quite recently children didn’t really have individual right at all but that rights were “conferred via their parents” (pg 14). This meant that decisions could be made about what was ‘best’ for the child without having to consider the wishes or opinions of the child. Children were seen as the ‘property’ of their parents and the overriding philosophy was one of ‘parental rights’ rather than parental responsibility (Kay 2001). Children all over the world suffer from neglect and abuse because of the failure of adults to protect children and accord them with basic human rights. During the last few years in the UK, as advancements have been made in human rights and civil rights, so there have been advancements in the rights of the child, with more and more weight being accorded in law to the rights of the child. Evidence of the move towards children’s rights in the last few years can be seen, for example in the abolition of corporal punishment in schools and the calls from various pressure groups and individuals to outlaw the ‘smacking’ of children by parents.
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The United Nations UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was ratified by the UK in 1991, set standards for participating nations to work to, in order to protect the rights of the child. The principles of the Convention include “the belief that children have equal rights to adults and that adults have a responsibility to ensure that children’s rights and welfare are safeguarded and promoted” (Kay, 2001: 13). The question of ‘children’s rights’ can be difficult to negotiate because of age-related issues. On the one hand there is the argument that children are simply ‘miniature adults’ and therefore should be accorded the same rights and considerations as any other (adult) citizen. Organisations such as Childline and Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE, 2002) seek to forward the interests and rights of the child by working from the basic assumptions that children are oppressed by the childcare system and that “adults should not have power” over children (Parrott, 1999: 9) Apart from child protection and court proceedings there is evidence of child centred practice in a range of other fields, for example, in education - with the increasing use of ‘mentoring’ schemes for children who are having problems at school.
Organisations, such as those mentioned above, seek to implement the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and to educate and help children and young people to put into practice their rights in order to improve their lives. Clearly, though, children do not have the same legal status as adults in UK law. There are certain ages at which children are deemed to be of an age to engage in certain activities, for example, voting, having sexual intercourse, driving a car, etc. The fact that children are dependent on adults, not only because of their lack of legal status but also because of their level of development and need for protection makes it inevitable that there will be a power imbalance.
Rather than seeing children as ‘miniature adults, one could argue that children are qualitatively different to adults because they do not have the experience that adults have and therefore are not able to exercise the same level of judgement as adults which makes then vulnerable. This is compounded by the fact that children of different ages will have more or less experience and judgement. Another aspect to this argument is that levels of understanding or ‘maturity’ vary between different children of the same age.
The Children Act 1989 is the main piece of legislation that relates to children, and the piece of legislation that will shape the policies and procedures of any organisation or individual who works with children. It was introduced because previously the laws relating to children were often fragmented, out of date and extremely difficult to implement (Mullally, 1994). The Children Act was meant to consolidate the law for the ultimate benefit of children. The principle that the child’s welfare is paramount when court decisions are made is one of the main underpinning principles of the Act (Brayne and Martin, 1990) and this is compatible with the concept of ‘child centred practice’. The Act recognises the right of children to participate in decisions about their own welfare, depending on age and understanding, and gives children a ‘voice’ when decisions are made about them.
The Children Act however sets the welfare of the child as the issue which is to be the paramount consideration in court proceedings. This means that there may be a divergence between the wishes of the child and what is deemed by the court to be in the child’s best interest. Kay (2001:16) makes the point: “therefore, in theory and practice, the child’s views could be ascertained, considered and then ignored”. One of the roles for a social worker in such proceedings might be to ascertain the feelings and wishes of the child and then to make recommendations to the court, taking these wishes and feelings into account but not necessarily concurring with them. It could be argued that in cases such as these, a child centred approach is not adhered to. The counter-argument to this however could be that given the age of the child and level of cognitive development and experience, some children may not have a full understanding of the implications which their decisions may have on their lives. A child centred approach would seek to balance a child’s right to make decisions with their right to have their welfare protected.
The term ‘Gillick competent’ is used to describe a child under the age of 16 who is judged to be of a “sufficient understanding and intelligence to be capable of making up his own mind on the matter requiring decision” (Smith, 1996: 52). The practice implication for this is that when taking into consideration the opinions and wishes of the child, it must first be established what those wishes and views are and then whether those wishes and views are to be considered, or acted on, based on whether the child is deemed to have a full enough understanding of the implications of their decisions.
Farnfield (1998:53) talks about “children as consumers” and the difficulty which many social workers have in balancing the rights of the parents with the rights of the child. Given the drive towards working in partnership with parents in childcare and inclusion of all relevant parties when working within a social care field, it may be difficult, when working with families, to remain focussed on the issue of who the client is and whose interests are best being served by any particular course of action. Trevithick (2000) discusses a particular case where she was having difficulty in establishing a good relationship with parents in a child protection case. The issue of having the ‘agenda’ of protecting the children was identified as a stumbling block in the establishment of a rapport with the parents. Brayne and Martin (1999) however argue that, from a legal perspective, in child protection cases the primary client must always be the child. This is borne-out by the policy document ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’ (Department of Health, Home Office, Department for Education and Employment, 1999) which states that professionals should: “work co-operatively with parents unless this is inconsistent with the need to ensure the child’s safety.” This is also compatible with the ethos of child centred practice in placing the child first.
The need to protect the welfare and rights of children in court proceedings has resulted in the appointment of independent guardians ad litem (re-named ‘children’s guardians’ since April 2001) under section 41 of the Children Act (1989) to represent the interests of the child. A guardian ad litem will be appointed by the court to act as advocate for the child unless satisfied that it is not necessary for the best interests of the child to do so. Dalrymple and Burke (1995) discuss guardians ad litem and the value that their reports have when implementing a child-centred approach, given that they are in the “privileged position of advising the courts” (pg 153). Anti-oppressive practice is promoted by the use of advocates to represent people who are in positions of relative powerlessness, as children arguably are, in court proceedings, so this also promotes a child centred practice.
Although there have been great improvements in child centred practice and consideration of children’s rights since the Children Act was first implemented there are still further improvements which could be made. According to Smith (1996) social work has been criticised for “lagging behind legal expectations of consultation with children” (pg 55). Criticisms have including failing to take the wishes of the child into consideration when carrying out assessments and failing to consult and involve children in proceedings. Other criticisms have been centred around failure to consider adequately the needs of children from different cultural backgrounds and of children with disabilities. Despite the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, nearly ten years ago, there are still areas where the UK is still lagging behind in implementing the guidelines. Social work policy and practice guidelines acknowledge the benefits of a child-centred approach in the outcomes for children in need and looked after children and in the court system. Further research is also being carried, both by statutory and voluntary agencies out to see how far guidelines are adhered to. Recommendations from these reports need to be followed in order for there to be a more child-centred approach to children’s provisions in future so that children really do have their rights addressed.
Brayne, H and Martin, G (1999) Law for Social Workers – sixth Edition. London: Blackstone
Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) http://www.crights.org.uk/about/about.html (2002, 9th March)
Dalrymple, J. and Burke, B. (1995) Anti Oppressive Practice. Buckingham: Open University Pres
Department of Health; Home Office; Department for Education and Employment, (1999) Working Together to Safeguard Children London: HMSO. Available online: http://www.doh.gov.uk/pub/docs/doh/safeguard.pdf (2002, 3rd March)
Department of Health (2000) Report of the Tribunal of Inquiry into the Abuse of Children in Care in the Former County Council Areas of Gwynedd and Clwyd since 1974. Available online: http://www.doh.gov.uk/lostincare/20102.htm (2002 1st March)
Farnfield, S (1998) ‘The rights and wrongs of social work with children and young people’ in Cheetham, J. and Kazi, M.A.F (eds.) The Working of Social Work. London: Jessica Kingsley
Kay, J (2001) Good Practice in Childcare. London: Continuum
Mullally, M. (1994) Law and The Family. London: Hodder and Stoughton
Parrott, L. (1999) Social Work and Social Care. Sussex: Gildridge Press
Smith, P.M. (1996) ‘A Social Work Perspective’ in Davie, R., Upton, G., and Varma, V. (eds.) The Voice of the Child: A Handbook for Professionals. London: Falmer Press
Trevithick, P. (2000) Social Work Skills. Buckingham: Open University Press