Today is the 20th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
But according to a hard-hitting report by the Children‘s Rights Alliance, young people‘s rights to privacy and family life are being breached by local authorities who do not consult them appropriately about the decision to take them into care.
Children’s rights experts are concerned that tragedies such as Baby Peter may be prompting local authorities to take an aggressive stance, particularly towards young, single mothers.
The report argues that children’s rights are still being systematically and directly breached in many areas, including the right to confidentiality if they disclose abuse and the right to influence decisions about where they should live.
Older children may be becoming reluctant to seek help from professionals because of the “frustration and disappointment” they feel at not being listened to and because they do not trust that they can seek the help they need without losing control of the process.
“The current child protection system in this country is not fit for purpose and needs to be re-defined within a rights-based framework”, the report argues.
This would: “respect choices that children made, including about whom they choose to tell”. It would offer children a degree of confidentiality, to enable them to discuss problems “without fear of triggering the consequences of a full-scale child protection response”.
A system which respected children’s rights under the UN Convention and the Convention on Human Rights would also ensure that children only ever lost their family home, contact with siblings or their place in school as a last resort, says the report, The State of Children’s Rights in England 2009.
Lois O’Neill, now 21, is on the Young People’s Board of Cafcass, the national agency which represents children’s interests in care proceedings in England. She has vivid memories of being taken into care straight from school, aged eight.
“My teacher told me I wouldn’t be going home. Then I was taken to a foster carer’s house. I didn’t know why,” she said. “I wasn’t given any information. They wanted to wait until I was older but personally I don’t think my age was a problem. It could have been explained. If they had given my mum the support she needed we wouldn’t have had to go.”
CRAE argued that a children-rights-based system “would ensure that children had access to properly trained and supervised social workers being allowed to get on with the job, including having their professional judgements for keeping children safe supported by the system”.
Katie Swayne, CRAE legal director, said: “Deciding what weight to give to a child’s wishes and feelings is a difficult judgement for a social worker. But it is so important that the child feels they have been respected and consulted because that experience is very formative.” However, she argued that there is “a real lack of children’s rights awareness” in social work training and recruitment is hampering improvement.
Roger Morgan, the children’s rights director for England, said that even very young children should be consulted in the process. “The important word is feelings. A three-year-old can have feelings, they can feel happy or frightened. It may be possible to say to an eight-year-old, here are two options for you, which do you think would work better? On the other hand there may some 15-year-olds who would struggle with that.” He added that research showed that 8 out of 10 children in care felt they were in the right place.
Niamh Harraher, a solicitor at the Children’s Legal Centre said there has been a marked swing on the issue of taking children into care. “I am representing teenage mums and local authorities are taking a much more aggressive stance against them. Sometimes it seems that they have a very middle-class view of what childhood should be like and what parents should be like. It does sometimes seem as if the bar is set so high and the level of scrutiny is so intense that you wonder, if they came into many people’s homes and took things out of context, how many families would fall short?”
According to Anthony Douglas, chief executive of Cafcass, the English system has made progress, and “gives the strongest voice to children now,” although he admits this does not always happen on the ground. “It is really the difference between having a good social worker and a bad social worker,” he said. Cafcass regularly seeks feedback from children who have been through the system. The processhas a 70% satisfaction rating, yet only half of the children say they feel going into care has made a difference. “It is not that staying at home would have been better – it is more that home is lousy but care is lousy too,” says Douglas.
Howard Cooper, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services workforce committee, says: “It is impossible to involve children too much in issues that are vital to their welfare. However, current pressures on the system, including a high staff turnover, do make it more difficult for social workers to spend sufficient time building relationships with and listening to children and young people.”