Following our recent mini-series on handing disclosures, reader and social worker Ben Tomlinson shared the findings of his research into the involvement of children in decision-making.

Here’s what he found…

Over to you, Ben:

Whilst on a placement in a long-term childcare team, I realised that very few practitioners were spending any meaningful time with children.

Yet they were making recommendations that could have a huge impact upon children’s lives.
As part of my MSc Social Work dissertation I opted to focus upon child services users’ experiences of being listened to by social services.

Particularly whether they felt their views and wishes had been taken into account.

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Good intentions are not enough…

I found that social workers’ recommendations were often based upon assumptions of what they felt was best for the child.
In 1988, the Cleveland Inquiry recommended that “the child must be treated as a person and not an object of concern.” This later became one of the key themes in the Children Act (1989).

In a review of fifty serious case reviews this “objectification” of children was described as being “probably the single most consistent failure in safeguarding work with children” (HM Government, 2010, p.33).**

The child must be treated as a person and not an object of concern.[/shareable]

Barriers to children’s participation…

The following three things were the major obstacles:
1. Adult attitudes – including:

  • Seeing children as a problem or as not competent to comment.
  • Not really wanting them to express a view
  • Feeling that to keep children informed is enough
  • Using participation just to gain children’s compliance
  • Not showing an interest in the child’s view of his/her own life
  • Viewing oneself as an expert at the expense of what the child thinks

2. Bureaucracy – including…

  • Overly systematised ways of working
  • Too focussed on statistics, performance indicators and targets
  • Overloaded with tasks that distract from a focus on the child
  • Putting accountability before relationship
  • Process-driven working that stifles innovation
  • More time behind desks and less time in families’ homes
  • Conflict between the different agencies involved

There is a concern that the “control, assessment and management” aspects of a social worker’s role have displaced social worker’s roles as “case worker, counsellor and advocate” thus limiting “the opportunity to form consistent, enduring and meaningful relationships” with children and families.***
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3. Lack of knowledge and skills, for example…

  • Inability to communicate effectively with children
  • Poor understanding of child development
  • Lack of experience of dealing directly with troubled children
  • Inadequate knowledge of attachment and how to observe this in families
  • Needs-, rather than rights-based assessments
  • Lack of skilled supervision and guidance from experienced colleagues

Anyone working with children will recognise these as common blockers to participation.

But what can we do to change things for the better?



  1. Rights education – Children and professionals working with children need to be educated about children’s rights as outlined in UNCRC 1989.
  2. Review social work role – The social work role and bureaucratic processes need to be reviewed in line with a child-centred, value-based practice framework that focuses on individual needs and outcomes.
  3. Participation as the norm – Organisations to develop a culture that commits to and supports child participation at all levels.
  4. Support practitioners – We need structural and organisational systems in place that recognise direct work can be a challenge emotionally and can cause feelings of anxiety, uncertainty and distress in practitioners.
  5. Back to basics – Universities to review their pre-qualification degree courses to ensure students will start their careers with a grounding in psychological and child development theories, participatory theories and have had substantial opportunities to communicate with children and observe experienced practitioners.
  6. Skills training – Social Work educators and managers to ensure social workers and students are provided with opportunities to gain skills and experience in communicating with children and tailoring their approach to the needs [and rights] of the child.
  7. Creative practice – Social workers to be proactive in seeking supportive and creative ways to elicit children’s wishes and views.
  8. What do kids want? Research is needed into how to make the assessment process and child-protection conferences more child-friendly.
  9. Theory development – Research is required into developing a child participation theory with new models of participation created following on from this.
  10. The child’s voice – More research is needed into how much influence children have on the decision-making process.


Final word…

The notion of child-centred practice is now well established as a worthy, even obligatory, idea for those in the helping professions. But this research strongly suggests that for many, their theoretical knowledge is not matched by actual practice that focusses on what children think and what they want.

Mm, sobering…


What do you think?…

  • Is your practice child-centred? If so, what do you do to properly involve children?
  • Please let me know your thoughts…   Leave a comment below or click here.

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* Anonymous (1988, July 16). Summary of the Cleveland inquiry. British Medical Journal, 297(6642), 190-191.

** Her Majesty’s Government. (2010). Working Together to safeguard children: A guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. Retrieved from agency.pdf

*** Winter, K. (2009). Relationships matter: The problems and prospects for social workers’ relationships with young children in care. Child&FamilySocial Work, 14, 450-460. (p.452)

© Jonny Matthew 2017



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