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Hearing the Child

Hearing the Child

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Published by Yoni Perlstine

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Published by: Yoni Perlstine on Jul 18, 2011
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Hearing the child
cfs_606 391..399
David Archard* and Marit Skivenes
*Philosophy, University of Lancaster, Lancaster, UK,
HEMIL-Centre, University of Bergen, Bergen, Norway
ABSTRACTGiven that in our view the child has a fundamental right to be heardin all collective deliberative processes determining his or her future,we set out, firstly, what is required of such processes to respect thisright – namely that the child’s authentic voice is heard and makes adifference – and, secondly, the distance between this ideal and prac-tice exemplified in the work of child welfare and child protectionworkers in Norway and the UK, chiefly in their display of an instru-mental attitude to children’s views.
David Archard,Philosophy,University of Lancaster,Lancaster, LA1 4YGUKE-mail: d.archard@lancaster.ac.uk
child protection (policyand practice), children’s rights, socialwork ethics, youth policy
Accepted for publication:
Child protection workers in England and Norway areclear that children should be involved directly,explicitly and from the outset – in their own cases.Thetestimony we have gathered makes this plain. Never-theless, it also reveals striking ambiguities and uncer-tainties in their understanding of the precise rolechildren can and should play as participants. Ourfindings confirm those from other studies (Thomas &O’Kane 1998; Shemmings 2000).The equivocationswe discerned derive from the dilemmas social workersface when considering how exactly children should beheard in child welfare and child protection proceed-ings: how should we balance the child’s right to beheard with the child’s right to be protected; howshould we balance the imperative to gather evidenceagainst a concern for the child’s entitlement to revealinformation on his or her own terms; how should weacknowledge the custodial role of the parents but alsoguarantee that the child has her or his own right toparticipate; who assesses the maturity of the child andby what criteria; how should we determine what is inthe best interests of a child. One particularly criticalquestion is how social workers ought to handle thosesituations in which the child’s own view contradictstheir professional judgement of what is best. What,then,is the function and value of hearing the child?Wethink that an important reason for the difficultiessocial workers face in resolving these issues is theabsence of any clear understanding of the reasons whychildren have a right to be heard.In this respect,socialworkers are not necessarily alone. Adults generallylack a perspicuous sense of why, when and how chil-dren should participate in proceedings affecting theirinterests.Thus, one aim of our paper is to contributeto a better understanding of how to hear a child.Other researchers have also recognised the impor-tance of a child-centred approach to child welfare andchild protection. Some have evaluated emergent goodprofessional practice in respect of the participation of children of all ages (D’Cruz & Stagnitti 2008). Ourown approach criticizes existing practice concerningthe specific right to be heard of a capable child. Someresearch concerns the difficulties of involving childrenwhose circumstances or character makes it harder fortheir voices to be heard (Gilbertson & Barber 2002;Curtis
et al.
2004;McLeod 2007).Our own approachis directed to the more general prejudicial assump-tions that stand in the way of hearing any child.Finally, our concern was not with how the childrenviewed their role in decision-making processes(Leeson 2007) but with the attitude displayed by childprotection workers towards this role.Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on theRights of the Child (UNCRC) states:1. States Parties shall assure to the child who iscapable of forming his or her own views the right to
391 Child and Family Social Work 2009, 14, pp 391–399
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
express those views freely in all matters affecting thechild, the views of the child being given due weight inaccordance with the age and maturity of the child.2. For this purpose, the child shall in particular beprovided the opportunity to be heard in any judicialand administrative proceedings affecting the child,either directly, or through a representative or anappropriate body, in a manner consistent with theprocedural rules of national law.This Article’s recognition of the importance of hearing a child’s views represents for many commen-tators a striking achievement of the Convention(Freeman 1993). But what exactly does this Articlerequire, how can we be assured that the requirementshave been met,and how far does practice match up tothe ideal? In this paper we address the imperative of hearing the child by discussing three questions. Inthe first section we define what it means to ‘hear’ thechild; in the second section we will spell out the con-ditions for ensuring that the child is‘heard’.In the lastsection we will examine the testimony of experiencedchild protection workers in England and Norway asillustration of how a child can be heard.
A child can be ‘heard’ in many different ways: directlyif the child gives oral testimony or submits a writtenstatement; or indirectly through the intermediary of an adult such as a specially trained legal advocate or arelevant professional. Howsoever we hear the child wedo not do so as we would a competent adult.An adultis self-determining and entitled to make free choiceswhereas the child’s age and maturity must be evalu-ated. Decisions in respect of children are made col-lectively by children
and adults
who must also takeinto account what is in the child’s best interest. Theimperative to hear the child conjoins with an equallyimportant imperative to give, as Article 3.1 of theUNCRC states,‘primary consideration’‘in all actionsconcerning children’ to ‘the best interests of the child’(see Note 2).Nevertheless, we do not seek the views of the childsimply in order to demonstrate the child’s possiblecompetence to decide for himself or herself; nor onlyso that they might play a consultative role in helpingadult decision-makers judge what is in the overallbest interests of the child. We think that the expres-sion by a child able to do so of his or her views hasindependent value as an essential element in thedecision-making process. The value derives from thefundamental respect a child is owed as a distinctindividual in that process (Archard & Skivenes2009).Furthermore, any process touching on some matteraffecting the child’s interests should be both one inwhich the child’s
voice is heard and a
one. First, children must be expressing their
views on the matter in question. A 10-year-oldchild may not have entirely sensible desires andbeliefs, and he or she may be very heavily influencedby a sense of what his or her parents want for him orher.Nevertheless,we can still assure ourselves that hisor her views really do reflect his or her own outlook onlife, what he or she wants to see happen. Second, thechild’s own view must not merely be heard but play itsproper part in the deliberative process of determiningwhat shall happen to the child. There are ascendinglevels of possible children’s participation up to realand non-token involvement in the determination of outcomes (Hart 1992; Shier 2001; Murray & Hallett2002). Moreover, giving effect to that involvementshould involve the thoughtful and creative construc-tion of appropriate practices (Alderson 2008,Chapters 5–9).The obligation to hear the child enshrined inArticle12 of the UNCRC is,it should be noted,carefully andconditionally phrased. The right to express a view isaccorded only to a child‘capable of forming his or herown views’, and is given a ‘weight in accordance withthe age and maturity of the child’. Stimulated by theUNCRC but not restricted to explication of itscontent, there has been extensive discussion over thelast 20 years of a child’s right to express her ownviews, and of the child’s capacity to make decisions inhis or her own best interests. Of most relevance to thecurrent discussion is the accumulated evidence that itis a mistake to presume a simple linear progressivedevelopment of every child and thus that it shouldalways be possible straightforwardly to read off achild’s maturity from his or her age (Richards & Light1986; Bruner & Haste 1987). Social processes play animportant role (Smith 2002). Moreover, children’sability to participate in processes determinative of their own interests is precisely enhanced by grantingthem proper opportunities to do so (Smith
et al.
2003,p.211;Alderson 2008,Chapter 4).Put at its simplest,‘Treating children with respect can markedly increasetheir competence’ (Alderson 1992, p. 175).
We now turn to the question of how we might ensurethat the child’s authentic voice is indeed heard and
Hearing the child
D Archard and M Skivenes
392 Child and Family Social Work 2009, 14, pp 391–399
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
given its due. Here, we appeal initially to consider-ations drawn from general deliberative theory and tofour governing principles underpinning
delibera-tive process. First, all participants involved in thecase must be given the opportunity to participate.In achild welfare case these might include, at a minimum,the child, the child’s parents and social workers.Second, there must be an appropriate location for thepresentation of views, claims and arguments.As far aspossible this should not disadvantage any participant.Children should not be intimidated by the circum-stances in which they are asked to present their views.Third, it is important that there should be no signifi-cant differences between the participants in theirability to articulate a point of view, present an argu-ment, advance a claim or understand the terms of thecase. Here, children are clearly at a disadvantage. It isthus important that due allowance is made for theirinability relative to adult participants: in the languageused and in the foregoing of deliberative procedureswith which a child would be unfamiliar and uncom-fortable.There is further detailed discussion of whatthis means in the following section. Fourth, the delib-erative process is one in which everyone participatinghears everything that everyone else has to say. Reviewof the process by an impartial outsider to ensure fair-ness is perfectly consistent with the maintenance of confidentiality and limited disclosure.
Conditions for facilitating participation
To ensure that the child’s voice is authentic and givenits proper due, children clearly need to be adequatelyinformed about and able to understand the issues atstake. Information must be provided to children in amanner sensitive to their character, abilities andparticular circumstances. If and when children dohave questions, these need to be comprehensivelyanswered,and it is crucial that there is somebody withwhom they can fully and frankly talk through all theissues. Children need the space and time to thinkabout matters and to form an opinion.The further question then arises of how to makecertain that the child’s view is best presented. Thechild may be able, in propitious surroundings, to saywhat she or he thinks.The child-friendliness of thesesurroundings will be constituted by the décor, light-ing,size and location of any room chosen.A child mayfind it easiest to express her or his views in unorthodoxcircumstances – out on a walk, while being driven in acar, for instance. Equally younger children may needtheir views to be teased out by the use of methodssuch as drawing, role play and the telling of stories.Those who work with children and charged withlearning their views thus need to be flexible and opento various possibilities.Soliciting children’s views on matters touching cen-trally on their own welfare or future cannot probablybe done in a single meeting. Nor can they be obtainedimmediately by someone in whom the child has notyet had a proper opportunity to develop trust.Viewswill emerge and be confirmed over time once a rela-tionship has been built between the child andthe relevant adult. Again, resources and time must bedevoted to ensuring that this can be managed.Studies of children’s participation confirm thesefindings: ‘Developing an effective procedure for elic-iting children’s perspectives and establishing a trust-ing relationship takes time. Rather than a one-ofinterview it may be necessary to talk to the childseveral times or to talk while participating in theirnormal everyday activities’(Smith
et al.
2003,p.212).It is of the utmost importance, from the outset, thata child is seen as being the principal participant inany proceeding administrative or judicial – whichconsiders his or her interests. It may be easier if thenumber of adults is kept to a minimum, and childrencan be understandably nervous and restrained if theircomments concern those, such as a parent, whosepresence would frighten or intimidate the child. Chil-dren may simply lack the confidence to speak theirmind, even in the most favourable circumstances andto the most sympathetic adults. Consideration thenneeds to be given to the role a trusted or experiencedor trained adult might play as the child’s spokesper-son. Given a child’s vulnerability to the influence of adults close to them it will always help to measure achild’s explicit preferences against behaviour. If achild’s actions say something different from the viewshe or she actually expresses, then there are reasons toconclude that his or her views are inauthentic.This,inturn,provides adults with reasons to think again aboutthe circumstances in which the child’s views are beingelicited.Adults involved in the deliberative process arerequired to give the views of the child due weight inaccordance with the age and maturity of the child.There should be transparency and fairness in the waythat this is done.A determination of the child’s matu-rity should not simply follow from a prior judgementof the prudence or imprudence of the child’s views. Itis also unwise to permit the same people who judgewhat is best for the child to make a judgement of thechild’s maturity.Any discussion between children and
Hearing the child
D Archard and M Skivenes
393 Child and Family Social Work 2009, 14, pp 391–399
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

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