Children and young people in care have not always had the time and support they need to develop the knowledge, skills or confidence to express their views and advocate for themselves. Navigating the child protection system can be a difficult task even for the most seasoned professionals – and much more so for the children and young people who are caught up in it.
The right to an advocate
One of the rights outlined in the Charter of Rights for Children and Young People in Care is that children and young people have the right to speak to someone who can act on their behalf when they cannot do this.
The number of children and young people in care who may need advocacy support far outweighs the resources of the Guardian for Children and Young People. For this reason, children and young people in care need the adults in their existing network (both personal and professional) to advocate for them. Such adults can, and should, act to ensure that the voice and interests of each child and young person in care are represented.
We call this ‘natural advocacy’.
Natural advocacy supports the voice and rights of the child. As well as having their voice heard and their rights addressed, being involved with the advocacy process can allow young people to learn valuable lessons; that they have rights, including the right to be heard, that rights can be negotiated to achieve better outcomes, and the value of persistence.
As a ‘natural advocate’, you can work with a child or young person to help ensure:
- they have a place to live where they are safe, cared for and respected
- their views and wishes are asked for, and considered, in planning such as at care team meetings, case conferences or annual reviews
- they are given the opportunity to participate in decisions that are made about matters such as school changes, placement moves, or family contact
- they have access to services such as health, housing, mentors, cultural support, recreation and education
- their interests, aspirations, achievements and strengths are recognised and supported by the adults around them
- they know about the Charter of Rights for Children and Young People in Care
- they know how to access a complaints or review process if things aren’t going well for them, or if they disagree with a decision that has been made about their care.
Your advocacy might involve contacting services and decision-makers directly, or supporting the child or young person to do this themselves.
Challenges in advocacy
One of the most significant challenges a natural advocate may face is that advocacy can sometimes be misread by other care team members, colleagues and/or management as disruptive or obstructive to the work of the care team. Natural advocates may also fear that they will not be as powerful as an external, professional, or more senior voice, and so they may not feel empowered to pursue an issue on the child or young person’s behalf.
This is where the Charter can be helpful. The Charter, which has been widely adopted and endorsed by 88 organisations to date, frames the work of an advocate positively, as a legitimate action that focuses attention on the child or young person’s voice and rights. Grounding your advocacy in the Charter can prompt discussion and reflection, which can in turn promote child-focussed decision-making.
There are a few things to remember if you are going to act as a natural advocate for a child or young person:
- Wherever possible, it is important to seek the child or young person’s consent to act on their behalf (if they have not asked you to do so).
- Wherever possible, it is important to seek the child or young person’s voice on matters related to their care, so that this can form the basis of your advocacy.
- Consider, at the outset, whether it is safe for you to advocate for what the child or young person wants (their safety is paramount).
- Involve the child or young person in the process as much as possible (depending on their age and developmental capacity), or in accordance with their wishes.
- Role-model positive communication and team work throughout the process.
- Be careful not to make promises about the outcome or what you can achieve, but reassure the child or young person that you will do your best to help them have a voice in the process.
- Be mindful of keeping your own views, complaints or frustrations separate from the child or young person’s voice and needs.
If your advocacy is not successful, be honest with the child or young person about the process and outcome. Support the child or young person to reflect on what they might have learned or achieved through the process, and congratulate them for their bravery, confidence and persistence. In some situations, it might be appropriate to explore whether a compromise can be negotiated, and in other situations, it might be appropriate to pursue a formal complaints or review process.
If you, or the child or young person, continue to hold significant concerns after you have attempted natural advocacy, you can contact us for advice about other options and/or an assessment of whether advocacy is required from our office.
You can phone us on 8226 8570 (adults) or 1800 275 664 (free call for children and young people only).