Participation is a value of our Strengthening families Protecting children Framework for practice, and it is also a core element of the child placement principle.
The underpinning principles of the Child Protection Act 1999 (the Act), section 5 clearly emphasises participation by children and young people, respect for their rights, consideration of their views and, where possible, involvement in decision-making processes affecting their lives.
Children and young people in care have particular needs that must be addressed in order to ensure their safety and improve their emotional, physical and psychological wellbeing. The core rights that apply to every child and young person subject to the custody or guardianship of the chief executive are provided in the Charter of rights for a child in care (Schedule 1, Child Protection Act 1999.
Genuine participation occurs only when young people know their voices are being heard—that they actually have an influence on the decisions being made.
Youth engagement requires more than just inviting input. As young people approach adulthood, we need to give increasing levels of respect to their choices and preferences, even in challenging situations that involve some degree of risk.
Young people will be engaged in participatory decision–making processes throughout all stages of their involvement with Child Safety.
It is essential to engage with a young person to obtain, understand and take their views into account, particularly when decisions are made regarding:
- the commencement and conclusion of a care arrangement
- family contact arrangements with the young person’s parents and extended family
- the level and nature of information provided to carers
- the young person’s health and wellbeing
- the young person’s education, training and employment
- identification of a natural mentor, if the young person is working with Next Step Plus now or will be in the future
- ongoing contact arrangements between a young person and previous carers
- reunification planning.
Participation by young people in decision-making can be facilitated in case planning meetings and case work processes such as:
- family group meetings, and other case planning and review meetings and discussions
- placement meetings
- meetings in relation to their education support plan, training and employment
- child health passport meetings
- transition to adulthood planning
- behaviour support planning
- developing cultural support plans.
Family-led decision making processes will include seeking the views and wishes of the young person. Wherever possible, they will have the opportunity to attend family group meetings and other meetings.
A young person’s participation rights also apply to daily care decisions. Matters where engagement is vital, and their views must be considered include (but are not limited) to:
- where the young person goes to school
- contact with friends, including sleepovers
- haircuts, clothing, jewelry and piercing
- decisions about counselling
- sporting, recreation and curriculum-related activities
- cultural and religious events and activities.
And when I was 17 my CSO, we sat down and she said ‘What are you thinking about doing?’ And I said I was thinking about doing a dual degree, and then she said, ‘OK, now let’s look at some other options’ and she pulled out like a TAFE guide and she said ‘Oh maybe you could think about working part time or maybe going to TAFE one day’. Like it was this far off, if I was lucky, like university was totally discounted as an option, she didn’t even recognise it as a possibility. She was like ‘OK, right, wants to go here, not an option. Right now, let’s look at some more realistic possibilities shall we’, and that just made me really angry. And so I just pretended to go through that with her and we came up with a plan which was her plan, not my plan. (Q11, female 22 years, Brisbane region, then undertaking a dual degree and working two jobs to pay for her studies.)
(Crane, Kaur & Burtin. 2013, p. 45)
Celebrating and encouraging this young person’s ambition would have promoted their participation in the process and given them ownership of their plan.
|Be intentional and bold.||Choose language that makes your intention specific to young people. Make it clear that you want to work with them because you genuinely care for them. Ask the young person how they would like to interact of how best to encourage them to engage.|
|Promote open, honest communication.||
Young people appreciate candor from adults and their peers. They want you to communicate with them in a real and respectful way, without soft-selling or ambiguity. Letting young people be heard allows them to test and develop their own voices. Listen to their ideas and opinions, but also step in and guide them in a different direction when appropriate.
|Establish purpose and direction.||You need to have a sense of purpose and direction in your work together. Most young people thrive when they have something to work towards and when expectations are high. Celebrate accomplishment and completion with meaningful ceremonies.|
|Create a safe and respectful 'we are in this together—we are family' atmosphere.||Teamwork in a communal environment helps young people feel validated, empowered and part of something important. Instead of typical 'teacher-student' or 'parent-child' instructional relationships, peer and mentor relationships with adults help.|
|Guide, don't rule.||
Young people are caught in an awkward divide between childhood and adulthood. They can also sense when an adult has an agenda.
Young people want plans, processes and programs that have some relevance to their lives as they perceive them. Give them input into the assessment and planning process, not just the product. Allow them to participate in shaping and running their plans.
|Empower teens but be prepared for what happens.||There is a fine line between too much freedom and too much structure. Empowerment involves negotiation, dialogue and sometimes compromise within the context of Child Safety's values, objectives, mandates and working culture.|
|Respond to current needs and adjust your approach accordingly.||
Part of engaging with young people is keeping a plan responsive and in sync with what inspires and motivates them.
From the start, integrate evaluation into your engagement effort as a tool for planning. Set goals, outcomes and measures for success. Seek formal and informal feedback from young people to see if plans are accurate. Always be open to new models and practices. Make a habit of formal evaluation and informal dialogue to keep your work with young people relevant and meaningful.
|Be realistic about scale, but plan for long a long-term program.||Be realistic about the scale of the plan or program you can reasonably support. Stable, long-term plans or programs provide more consistent benefits for young people than episodic efforts. Realistic planning helps prevent cutbacks, which will have a negative developmental impact because young people lose not just an activity but also a meaningful experience with personal attachments.|
|Be willing to experiment.||If you are not sure where to begin in engaging young people, explore models that colleagues or other organisations use and try different strategies with the young person.|
|Agree with young people on guidelines for working together.||
It is human nature to be more comfortable in situations that have some structure, and adolesents are no exception. Involve them in the process of defining what a safe space means to them and in setting clear guidelines and rules for engagement at the beginning of your work together. Discuss issues such as attendance, confidentiality, language and the process of sharing feedback on each other's work. Young people and adults should agree on consequences for breaking rules.
Post the agreement on your wall. Give a copy to the young person and revisit it periodically if needed. Ask the young person to take responsibility for maintaining the agreement in working together.
|Decide how communication will happen.||
Design interactions around the young person's communication preferences. Text messaging is the most prevalent form of exchanging news and information among young people. Online spaces also build a sense of belonging, including a website, a Flickr photo stream and other options they choose and create. Ask young people to work with you to decide how to share information (Kicbox is a useful communication tool and place to share information).
|Design comfortable, safe spaces.||Create a physical space that promotes responsibility and respects young people's needs and habits, such as a lounge area for relaxing and meeting, or a meeting table for planning and discussion.|
|Talk about the difficulties.||Respectfully name and validate the young person's possible anxieties about the process and about the future. Project an attitude of empathetic, non-judgemental curiosity about their inner world of emotions.|
|Explore existing relationships.||Use the social resources that are important in their world. Who do they trust? Who anchors and supports them? How can we include and respect these relationships even if they are not the ones we would choose for them?|
|Working with young people who have experienced trauma.||In working with the young person, be aware of trauma they may have faced and what impacts it may have had, and acknowledge the importance of trust, relationship and emotional safety.|
Adapted from Hirzy, (2011).
Where possible, make a meeting fun; make it a bonding activity. For example, if the young person needs to buy furniture, suggest going together and sit on the couches. Want to learn to cook? Let’s cook something together…
Barriers to engagement
Young people may be dismissive of planning processes, cynical about whether these will be helpful to them, adamant that they already know all about it and unwilling to engage in conversations or processes to develop a transition to adulthood plan.
There are usually logical and valid reasons why young people resist engagement. We need to understand these barriers so we can assist young people to exercise choice and control in their lives.
Some of the reasons for resistance could be:
- inadequate underpinning relationships with the stakeholders involved (no foundation of safety and trust)
- previous experiences of planning processes that were focused on the needs of adults or the system, and provided limited opportunities to genuinely participate and develop a sense of self efficacy (belief in self and abilities) and autonomy
- anxiety about the future and avoidance of having to think about or discuss their fears of failure, loss and alienation
- unresolved trauma associated with abuse, neglect and disrupted attachment, including problems with affective (emotional) regulation
- conflicting emotions associated with family, carers and Child Safety staff
- lack of confidence in speaking to adults about their fears, aspirations and needs
- cognitive challenges associated with intellectual capacity, attention, literacy, communication and social behaviour
- lack of cultural safety, including cultural norms about gender, privacy and shame.
Actively plan to spend time just listening. Young people are the experts in their own lives.
Actively listening, using attentive body language and following up on their suggestions or wishes will encourage young people’s engagement and reinforce your belief in them.
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