In the Office of the Guardian we get many opportunities to advocate on behalf of children and young people and it is a very rewarding part of our work. ‘Doing it right’ though doesn’t always mean achieving the change the child wants but it means completing the advocacy with stronger relationships and the child or young person feeling satisfied with taking action.
Based on what young people have had to say about participation, advocacy and making complaints, we have a pretty good idea of what works from a young person’s point of view.1
Good advocacy for children starts from listening very well and closely. Clarifying what the child wants in their own terms but being careful not to redefine it to fit our own view of the situation or what would make our life easier.
Jake, 12, wants more contact with his father Colin. Jake’s social worker is of the opinion that Colin is unreliable and self-centred. Colin has made promises to Jake before and has almost always let him down and left Jake unsettled and unhappy. Jake’s foster family are resentful of Colin’s presence. They have looked after Jake for the last four years and have seen him settle into a happy child who attends school and has good friends. Jake has occasional, enjoyable time with his siblings who live with another family. Jake has asked us to advocate for more contact with his father.
Jake’s views are clear. But before we launch into representing his views we have to talk through the context, such as the limitations to his power (his father may let him down), his responsibility to others (what impact will this have on his foster family), unanticipated consequences (the trade-off in reduced time with his siblings).
Advocating for one thing as if it is isolated from all other things is dangerous. This is particularly so when it affects relationships between people and it is an advocate’s responsibility to think this through with the young person.
Invariably, every problem is layered, so exercising power can lie within (or below) the presenting problem. An advocate will negotiate among the parties for some change. In my example, it may not be good or possible for Jake to have more face to face contact with Colin but could he make a connection through Facebook, through Colin’s mother, or by getting more information about his father? And it might be that these alternatives are more palatable to his foster family.
Perhaps the toughest test of good advocacy is timeliness. For us, Jake’s request is just one of the matters in our work life, progressed through meetings, emails, and due process. It is easy to forget what it feels like to be Jake, waiting and hanging on a decision. Persistence and respectful pursuit of a resolution are fundamental to good advocacy.
It is also tempting to take the issue on as if it is our own, to anticipate success for ourselves by arguing well or using our authority, and to assume that the goal is to get what we asked for. The goal is always more complicated than that. Beyond the immediate issue is what we leave behind us when we step out from the advocate’s role. First, did the young person feel in control of what happened during the advocacy or complaint? Did they act for themselves whenever that was possible? (Sometimes they just need to know who to ask.) Did we check back on their views? Did we explain well enough what decisions they could make and what they couldn’t and why?
So even if Jake does not get all that he wants he should be left feeling that he was listened to and his views respected, with a sense of control and empowerment and with the important relationships with his foster family and his worker intact.
1 See for example, Barnes, V (2007) ‘Young People’s Views of Children’s Rights and Advocacy Services: A Case for ‘Caring’ Advocacy?’ Child Abuse Review v.16 pp 140-152; Ofsted (2012) Young People’s Views on Complaints and Advocacy, www.rights4me.org; and drawn from advice provided by the Guardian’s Youth Advisors.
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