The importance of participation
We started to consider the importance of participation in Week 1 of this course. Let us now revisit this vital subject.
Meaningful participation means children and young people are provided the opportunity to express their views, influence decision-making and achieve change. Participation can take on many different forms including involving children and young people in decision-making about their own lives and letting them have their say in decisions about wider policies and practices that may affect them.
Participation of children and young people means their views must be listened to and carefully considered, however, as adults we also have a duty to protect children from harm and to make sure any decisions are made in their best interests.
Research from around the world suggests that children rarely participate in decisions about their care, or are consulted in a way that encourages them to express their true views. If, for example, they are not consulted in decisions about formal care placement, this clearly contravenes Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which gives children the ‘right to be heard’ in all judicial or administrative procedures affecting their lives. This is also why the drafters of the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children paid careful attention to the issue of participation.
The Guidelines explicitly consider the importance of children’s participation in several places. For example, they mention:
- The importance of all decisions about children’s care being made in the best interest of the child, and of the importance of taking children’s views into consideration in determining best interests;
- Children having access to information and knowledge about the range of options open to them in order to make informed choices.
How to promote and support children’s participation
How children participate may depend on such factors as their age and maturity and their abilities, but even young children have views that can and should be taken into account. In addition, it is often dependent on the attitudes and capacity of adults facilitating participation.
Promoting children’s participation is important for the effective implementation of the Guidelines because:
- Listening to children is crucial for ensuring that any decision about whether or not placement in alternative care is necessary and that the form of care children receive is suitable. It is also important for understanding the benefits they gain from being in a family - children very often, but not always, want to remain in families because they value the love, support, and sense of belong that they bring;
- Children have strong views about the type of care they want and about where that care can be best provided - these views may not match with what adults think is best for them. For example, research from Malawi has shown that when children lose their parents, the decision about who they are sent to live with often follows traditional patterns, with children always being sent to live with their uncles. However, children often prefer to be placed with grandparents as they feel they will be better cared for there.
- Children can participate in both formal decisions about their care made through the courts or social services, and informally within families.
Why meaningful participation is not happening
There are many different reasons meaningful participation is not being realised. Some of these include:
- A lack of acceptance or experience in society of children playing an active role in decision-making processes;
- Adults may actively resist children’s participation, for a number of reasons. Lack of commitment to participation can often be overcome by exposing adults to children’s participation and showing them how articulate children can be and the value of their insights into their lives and well-being. Some adults are concerned they will automatically have to follow the child’s opinion or wishes, so it is important they realise they retain full responsibility for protecting children and acting in their best interests;
- Some key workers and carers lack the skills to effectively communicate with children, to gain their perspectives and really listen to their views;
- Children themselves might lack the confidence to share their views or feel fearful of the consequences and may need time and support to properly participate;
- The environments in which children and young people are being asked to participate, such as court rooms, may be quite intimidating. Remedying this may require little more than creative thinking. For example, if a child is speaking to the judge making a decision about their case, there could be a separate area where they are able to talk together away from the general court.
You can read the texts we used when creating this week’s materials in the ‘See Also’ section below. You might also refer to page 27 of the handbook Moving Forward: Implementing the ‘Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children’ where there are some ideas for policy development and examples of promising practice.