What if we were obliged to involve young people in significant decisions?

picture of Pam Simmons
Guardian Pam Simmons

The recently released Create Report Card was encouraging for us in South Australia on a number of fronts. The views of the young respondents show that, compared to the national average,  we did well in young people being able to contact their social worker as often as they wanted, more knew about their education plans and most felt that the Department had cared for them well.  Familiarity with their rights was also fairly high.  It looks less positive for placement stability and satisfaction with their placement.

When asked about having a say in decisions and feeling listened to, young people in SA were, as a group, more positive than young people in most other states  but this is nothing to be complacent about.  If we look at the results on participation from the office’s audits of annual reviews the ‘year to March’,  only 27 per cent of those who were old enough  directly participated in the reviews in person or by survey.  A small improvement on the 25 per cent in 2011-12 at 25 per cent but not much improved over the last four years.

Nobody disagrees that, in principle, children and young people should be involved in decisions  about things that directly affect them.  And not all young people want to participate in meetings or take any more responsibility than they have to.

But what if we were obliged to involve young people in significant decisions?

The Children’s Protection Act includes as a principle that, in determining a child’s best interests, we consider a child’s views if they are able to form and express those views.  Further, family care meetings and court decisions require representation of the child’s views.

If we took it further and applied this principle to all significant decisions, how would it change the way we work with children?

It would mean that meetings where decisions were to be made could not be held unless and until the views of the child were presented, either directly or by proxy.  Information about what was being considered would have to be prepared in a way that a child could understand.  Reasons for decisions would have to be recorded and then communicated clearly to children.  Decisions made by the Minister’s delegates could not be made without consulting with the child, except in emergencies.

The face-to-face contact between social workers and children would increase and ‘talking and listening to children’ would become a compulsory subject in social work tertiary studies and induction training.  There would be coaches and tools for communicating and understanding children with disabilities. Fields for recording the young person’s views in the case recording system would be mandatory.

Decisions made because of a ‘lack of resources’, such as whether a child is able to take up another out of school activity or gets to see her siblings more often, would have to be discussed with the child, and explained and negotiated.  Children would learn that the decisions are not arbitrary but considered, that priorities have to be made and compromises reached.

But the real benefit I have seen when children or children’s voice is present is how much easier it is to feel the significance of the decisions and the urgency.

I understand and sympathise when you say  ‘Don’t you think we would do all of this if we had time?’  Of course we would.  But we do all sorts of other things ahead of consulting with the child because they are compulsory or rewarded or familiar.  So mandatory consultation with children could work.

And, as one young person said recently in a group consultation, ‘When you have a choice, you have to think about the consequences of making that choice.’

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