Our child protection system is set up to protect children from harm or further harm. We may have different views about what the further harm is and how to protect them but I’m okay with that. I truly believe that we all benefit from seeking, sharing and listening to different perspectives and that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. The best decisions are made from the inclusion of different perspectives.
But there are many challenges.
It is a challenge when two or more children have competing or opposing wishes and interests. Each child’s circumstances must be considered. But that doesn’t mean we ignore the collective needs of a group of children, like a biological or foster sibling group. One of the key messages from our 2010-2011 inquiry into sibling contact was that children can develop meaningful and satisfying sibling relationships with non-biological family members. The inquiry highlighted the importance of seeking the child or young person’s views, wherever possible, about who their family is and how they would like to maintain relationships with family members. We need to take the child’s views into account when making the best decisions.
It is a challenge when children are very young or don’t have the developmental capacity to contribute their views. I have seen, first-hand children who are younger than five years make active contributions but that’s not always possible or thought of or facilitated. Their ‘voice’ often has to be sought by other means; from those who know the child and from assessments that have been conducted by independent professionals.
Of course, those who know the child will have their own views and interests. There is nothing wrong with the adults in a child’s life presenting their views and interests, but at times it may be difficult to differentiate between what is the child’s voice and what is filtered through the adult’s interests.
What we ask on behalf of the child is that adults who have different opinions about what decisions should be made or what actions should be taken, acknowledge their different views and agree to work collaboratively and cooperatively to achieve the positive outcomes that the child deserves. It is not easy to leave self-interest, fixed positions, personal rivalries and ambition at the door but that, and a good dose of bravery, is what is needed.
It is a challenge when there are blocks to collaborative and cooperative work and some blocks are entrenched and need significant work to remove. Although change can take time, I have the good fortune to see first-hand great work to heal children and rebuild their lives and to improve the child protection system.
We need to be consistent, persistent and cooperative, and keep the children’s needs – and their views – central to our thinking and actions.