Project: Children's and Young People's views of the child protection process

Dates: September 2010 – March 2011

Funder: Office of the Children's Commissioner

Team: Jeanette Cossar, Professor Marian Brandon, Peter Jordan, Emeritus Professor June Thoburn and Sue Bailey

National and international legislation and guidance and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child spell out the importance of involving children in decision-making. The framework for involving children in the child protection process is laid out in national guidance in Working Together to Safeguard Children (HM Government 2010). There is limited research on children and young people who are not in care but who are involved with the child protection process. This study of children's and young people's experiences and views of the child protection process was particularly timely, as it coincided with a government review of the child protection system led by Professor Eileen Munro. The Office

of the Children's Commissioner commissioned this research and has accepted all the recommendations for action in respect of policy, service provision and practice.

The study sought to make a contribution to the development of service provision for children and young people who are involved in the child protection process by focussing on children's and young people's experiences and understanding of the professional processes in place to keep them safe.

The study addressed key aspects of the children's and young people's experiences including:

* What is the child's perception of risk?

* What helps the child feel safe?

* What is the child's view of the professional concerns about the family?

* What is the child's understanding of the child protection system?

* How much does the child participate in the child protection process?

* What is the child's experience of intervention?

* From the child's perspective how might child protection be improved?

The study was qualitative and exploratory. The research did not access case files or any other professional account of involvement. The focus was on the sense that the children and young people made of the systems designed to protect them and on the extent to which they considered them helpful.

Children and young people were involved throughout the research process. Young people on the research advisory group provided valuable insights at the design, data collection and analysis stages of the research and helped to write a young people's version of the report. In addition, the team consulted with a group of young people in one of the participating local authorities about the design of the recruitment and interview materials. Methods of data collection included individual activity-based interviews carried out by adult researchers and a workshop run by a combination of adult and young researchers. Workshop materials and methods were developed in collaboration with the young researchers who led many of the activities in the workshop.

A thematic analysis was undertaken of the interview and workshop data. A coding guide was developed drawing on existing literature on participation and on themes arising from a detailed consideration of two of the interviews. Interviews were then coded using NVivo software by one of three researchers. From each interview and the research notes for the visit a detailed summary was constructed allowing further analysis of key themes and preserving a sense of the complexity of each child's situation. Themes were then arranged according to the research questions. In addition, some basic facts, such as how many children had seen their child protection plan, were gathered from the interviews and these were entered on SPSS.

The study was conducted in collaboration with one local authority and one London borough. We sought to recruit children and young people between the ages of five and eighteen who had been the subject of a child protection plan in the preceding 12 months and who were not currently in public care. The two participating agencies drew up a list of children and young people fitting these criteria and the flyer and covering letter for the child was sent in a letter addressed to the parent. Follow-up phone calls were made by local authority workers who passed on the names of children and families who were willing to take part in the research to the research team. Across both the agencies 128 flyers were initially sent out, 46follow up phone calls were made and 18 families agreed to take part, providing a sample of 26 children in total.

Thirteen girls and 13 boys were interviewed, aged between six and 17. Just over three quarters of the children were of white British heritage. Those from ethnic minority groups included Asian/Asian British, black British Caribbean and Black British African children as well as two children who were of mixed heritage. Three of the children had a learning disability or special educational needs.

Many children took responsibility for what was happening in their families and often attributed family problems to their own behaviour. However, children and young people were not only worried about the things that happen in their families but also in the community and at school. Bullying was mentioned as a concern by half of the children.

A minority of the children and young people thought that professional concerns were mistaken or unfounded and these tended to be younger children. Some young people agreed that there had been a reason for professionals to be involved with their families but thought that the concerns were now in the past. There was a tendency for the children and young people to disagree with professionals' views of their parents. They were more likely to agree when they thought the professional viewed their own behaviour as problematic.

Many children had a partial understanding of child protection. They tried to piece together the information they had but could not give a coherent account. They often relied on parents and siblings for information. Children with a clear understanding were older and all of them had attended a child protection meeting. Ten of the children attended child protection meetings. Some of those who did not go wanted to attend. Most of the children who attended meetings found them difficult. Only five children of the 19 who answered had seen their child protection plans.

Children's views of social workers varied. The relationship with the social worker was important to them. They valued social workers who listened carefully, and who did not jump to conclusions. Some children talked of a trusting relationship with their social workers and said that it was important to be honest or nothing would change. However, other children reported having minimal relationships with social workers, seeing them rarely or only at meetings. Some children found it difficult to talk to their social workers because they felt pressured by the social worker asking questions, or said that the social worker twisted what they said.

Many children could identify something helpful that their social worker had done for them. They talked of practical help, improvements in their family relationships, liaison with schools and talking through their problems. A few young people talked about advantages of having a child protection plan, linking it with extra help at school or getting priority for services. Many children also spoke of negative aspects of having child protection involvement. These included intrusion, increased stress within the family, and having to deal with stigma.

Implications for Policy and Practice

* Social workers need to try to make sense of the child's view of the situation and include a focus in the work on what he or she finds harmful. They should be sensitive to the strategies that the child has developed to deal with the problems in the family.

* Social workers need to maintain remain open to the child's view of the situation. Where there is a difference between the child's and the social worker's views, they should ensure the child's views are represented and the social worker's position is explained to the child.

* Social workers should be aware that the child has a view about the child protection process as well as about the problems within the family. Social workers need to think about the sense that the child makes of the social work intervention and check what they find helpful and unhelpful.

* Social workers need to make sure that the child is given information about the child protection process that is appropriate to his or her needs. In assessing this, and the child's involvement, the social worker should take account of the dynamics within the family as well as the child's age and understanding.

* Local authorities need to recognise the importance of the child's relationship with the social worker and organise the work so that social workers can get to know children, and are not viewed as remote but powerful figures.

* Where there are particularly difficult dynamics between professionals and parents, managers could consider providing a separate worker for the child.

* Guidance on good practice should be promoted so that workers think about how best to involve each individual child.

* Local authorities could have a forum where children who are receiving services but are not in care could contribute their views of the child protection process and have an impact on service development. This could operate on a similar model to Children in Care councils.

Publication:

Cossar, J., Brandon, M. and Jordan, P. (2011) ‘Don't make assumptions' Children's and Young People's Views of the Child Protection Process and Messages for Change available at: http://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/content/publications/content_490