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The participation of children and young people in decision-making

The importance of participation
What is children’s participation? So there are lots of different definitions of children’s participation. But the one I use concentrates on consulting children to get their views, really listening to them, but also empowering them to achieve change. And there are within that definition, there are many different ways in which children could participate. So children can participate in decisions about their own life. But importantly, they can also participate to achieve wider change. And there’s also lots of different degrees of children’s participation. So children can, for example, just be consulted in decisions that are effectively being made by adults. Or they can be empowered to advocate to really achieve wider change.
And I think one of the things I wanted to emphasise is that there is no one right form of children’s participation. And the levels at which children participate really depends on the capacities of the adults facilitating that participation, and also the capacities of the children that are involved in the process. So for example, if you had a child who’s been in institutional care, who’s very used to strict rules and regulations, whose views haven’t really been heard or haven’t been asked for, it may be very hard to ask them to get up onto a stage to advocate for change. And initially, you might want to just consult them and get their perspectives in a more private way.
And I think it’s also important to think about what participation is not, as well as what participation is. There’s a lot of concern often that if children participate, adults have to do exactly what the child says. And I think it’s really important to remember that our, as adults, responsibilities, our duty to protect children, to act in their best interest does not change when they start to participate in decision making. And if we think the decisions that children are making are not in their best interests, we have a duty to listen very carefully, to really try and understand their perspectives, but to intervene if we think it’s heading in the wrong direction.
How is children’s participation relevant to their care and the Guidelines for Alternative Care of Children? Okay, so there are several different ways in which children can participate in decisions around their care. For example, there may be decisions about their own care, about who cares for them and where they’re placed. They might be able to participate in the design of programmes or interventions around children’s care. For example, if you were developing a new foster care programme, you want to consult children to get their perspectives on how that could be more effectively developed. And they can also advocate to achieve change around children’s care.
So I think there are many examples from around the world of children who have left care working together, coming together to advocate for childcare reform to the system. And the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children talk about children’s participation in several places. They talk about always acting in the best interests of children and consulting children and getting their views to determine that best interest. And they also talk about the importance of children having the information to make informed choices and decisions around their care. Why is the promotion of children’s participation so important to the effective implementation of the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children?
So I think it’s important for both ensuring that care is necessary, that children are placed in care only when necessary, and for also ensuring that the care that they receive is suitable. So in terms of the necessity principle, I think children have really good insights into the strengths and weaknesses in their families and into whether abuse is taking place within the families and whether removal from the family is necessary. So it’s really important to listen to their perspectives when determining whether they need to be removed from the family and placed in alternative care.
And also, I think in terms of thinking about the suitability of their care, children often have really strong opinions about which form of care is most suitable for their needs. And those opinions often are quite different from what we might assume as adults. So for example, in Malawi, there was some research done looking at where children would prefer to be placed within the family. And there, traditionally children were always, when their parents died, they were always placed with aunts or uncles.
But actually, children said they would rather be with their grandparents, because they felt they would receive more love and attention and support, and they were more likely to be abused and exploited if they were placed with aunts and uncles. And I think that was something that people didn’t know before they asked children and was quite important to take into consideration that meant that really, if you listened to that perspective children are more likely to be protected and safe and happy. What are some of the ways that children’s participation in decisions about their care can be effectively supported?
So I want to talk about some of the barriers to children’s participation that are quite common and the ways that those barriers could be overcome. So the first barrier, I think, is really around adults and their capacities and attitudes. There’s often quite a lot of resistance to children’s participation. And this is often quite cultural. I think often in many cultures all around the world, children-, there’s not a lot of respect for children’s perspectives. And adults are seen to be the ones that have the expertise and should be making the decisions.
I think one of the best ways to overcome that barrier is to really expose adults to children’s participation, to show them the unique insights that children have into their own lives and how articulate they can be about their care. And adults can also be quite fearful of children’s participation. As I mentioned earlier, they often think that it means that they have to do exactly what children tell them. So it’s quite important that you explain that that’s not the case to adults. And I think adults can also lack the skills and capacities to encourage and facilitate children’s participation, to listen, to really respect children’s perspectives. So it’s really important to properly train adults before they attempt to facilitate children’s participation.
Children themselves can also be a bit of a barrier. They may not have the skills or the capacities or the knowledge or the confidence to participate effectively. And as I mentioned earlier, it’s important to kind of start slowly and to gradually build up their capacities and their confidence to encourage them to participate. And the environments where children are participating, particularly if they’re participating in more formal decision making, can be quite intimidating. So courts, for example, can be quite intimidating environments for children to participate in. And I think there are ways to overcome that, they’re not high cost ways, that can be quite simple.
So for example, in Nepal, I’ve heard an example recently of a judge who was dealing with child abuse cases. And he simply created a separate waiting room for child witnesses that was away from their abusers, so they didn’t get nervous or intimidated by their abusers before they went into court. Very low-cost, very simple way of encouraging children to really share their true opinions and to have the confidence to do that.

Throughout the course steps on case management, we have highlighted the importance of children’s full and meaningful participation. In this video, Chrissie Gale speaks to Emily Delap. Emily is an independent international consultant with more than 20 years’ experience as a researcher, policy adviser, and programme manager focusing on child protection in low and middle income country contexts. Emily has extensive knowledge of child protection systems, alternative care, family strengthening and child exploitation.

Regardless of the situation, the full and meaningful participation of children in decisions being made about their own lives is important – including those of unaccompanied and separated children on the move. Children’s right to participate in decisions that affect them is central to making effective and appropriate decisions about their care. Therefore, listening carefully to children and taking their views into account is particularly important during the process of assessment as well as the development and review of Care and Protection Plans. Not just because it is their right, but we also know that it helps in better decision making. Children are the best informed of their own needs and wishes and their participation is far more likely to result in decisions that are more appropriate and sustainable. They are also less likely to be rejected by the child.

Emily tells us why it is important that children participate in a full and meaningful way in decisions that affect their lives. She reflects on how their participation is intrinsic to the effective implementation of the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children. Emily also provides us with ideas about ways to facilitate and support the participation of children and young people, all of which are applicable in different settings and for unaccompanied and separated children you are working with.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) gives children the right to express their views in all matters affecting them. This encompasses:

  • The right of children to receive ‘appropriate direction and guidance’ from those legally responsible for them, in ways that are consistent with the child’s own evolving capacity – for instance their age and maturity
  • Children’s right to be provided with information in a language and form they can understand, and which is suitable for their age and capacity. This information must be realistic in terms of opportunities and support that is available, and not create false hopes. Children must feel able to freely express their views and not be pressured or constrained in any way

We should therefore:

  • Do everything we can to fully facilitate the participation of a child and empower them to express their views and influence decisions
  • Not just listen to the views of a child but truly take them into full consideration
  • Be honest with children, not raise their expectations and not promise things that are unattainable. This can create serious feelings of mistrust, of being let down, and may harm your relationship with a child
  • Provide children with information that reflects reality, and help them be part of making decisions that are actually achievable. For example, if there is a very limited choice of places where they might be accommodated, this should be made clear
  • Explain that others will take a role in making decisions they think are in the child’s best interests based on their professional skills and experience

Achieving participation can be assisted by the use of child friendly tools. For example, in the case of younger children or those with learning difficulties, their participation and how they express their feelings and wishes can be encouraged through different methods such as drawing, play or observation. Adapting your use of language to the age and development of the child also helps a child understand what is happening.

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Caring for Children Moving Alone: Protecting Unaccompanied and Separated Children

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