Where is the Voice of the Child?

Jeffrey Baldwin
Jeffrey Baldwin

A few months ago, I conducted a survey of just under 50 lawyers who represent children in the child protection system. I was interested in the degree to which children have voice when their parents are being assessed. Child protection often contracts for parenting capacity assessments to determine what the strengths and deficits of a parent might be and what might be done to return children to parental care, or avoid taking children into care.

For the family, these assessments are a “big deal”. The outcome can impact case plans, interventions that are or are not offered and, most importantly, whether the child should be in the care of the parents. Courts take a lot of notice of these assessments.

Child protection should be a child-centered business. After all, it is really about the best interest of the child. You can imagine how taken aback I was when all but one lawyer said that the child’s voice is rarely or almost never evident in these assessments.

In a seminar I ran with lawyers, I was told that assessors in their jurisdiction rarely even saw the child with the parents. They went on to say that assessors typically did not interview children of an age when that would be appropriate.

The results of my research shocked me, quite frankly. What it does suggest is that, at least in this process, the focus on the child has been lost. The rights of the parents have garnered too much attention by comparison.

I thought about this as well when reading the latest report from the Child Advocate in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. The advocate spoke of numerous times that child welfare was involved with a particular child but that child was not interviewed or seen – repeatedly. This is not the first time that I have read reports of children who have died while involved with child protection where the reports note that the child was almost invisible in the case plan. One of the more famous cases comes out of the United Kingdom, the case of Victoria Climbie.

Another notorious case was in Toronto where workers failed to see Jeffrey Baldwin through many visits missing that he was starving to death.

These should act as powerful reminders that the child is the core purpose of the child protection system. The child needs to be seen, the child needs to have a voice and that voice needs to be heard.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of  CBCNews

Seeing Beyond the Negative: How Understanding Culture Adds Perspective

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Whilst working in local authority (Child Welfare Agency) as an auditor and conference chair, I have been involved in several child protection cases involving North Korean families. Child abuse is a complicated issue and there is much research on families in the UK from different cultural backgrounds and a lot of information can be found by looking at the Serious Case Review Biannual Analysis which is what I often do when researching issues to do with child abuse. As social workers we are often focused on some of the most difficult aspects of humanity, and our need to find out what the negatives are almost prevents us to see what the positive aspects of people’s worlds and cultures are.

Serious case reviews are a well researched government sponsored data gathering which is put into information which is easy to assimilate and not full of academic jargon based on class room discussions. The Biannual Analysis deals with real families that we as practitioners work with every day, unfortunately these reviews consist of children and families struck by tragedy. What did the Biannual Analysis tell me about North Korean families? Much in social work is based on hunches and anecdotes, my current inquiry was why are so many North Korean families being referred to children’s services and why was the nature of the child abuse so similar? I have not been able to find any information that can help me which might be a good thing bearing in mind the criteria that cases are submitted for SCR’s.

I have been involved with cases which have similar factors, they show the impact of parents who as children were abused or had harsh treatment in their past, and who may also have had recent post traumatic stress from possible torture or fear and anxiety of retribution or separation from family who may be at risk back home.

Also, I made an information request to the ICS department, ( ICS is our data capture system)which did not show huge numbers subject to child protection plans, but certainly showed significant numbers of children who are subject to child welfare services. This particular local authority has a high number of North Korean families. Other facts about their circumstances and child in need support may provide us with some interesting insights into these families who have sought refuge in a far away country.

As a social worker I am challenged to look after my wellbeing by eating healthy food, however local to where I work, there is a great Japanese street food restaurant that does fast take away orders. This is where I normally grab something to eat, served by the same familiar woman who takes my order and shouted it out in what I thought was Japanese to chefs busy cooking on open fires in a row of street kitchens.

Almost suddenly in these times of austerity in London, a new Japanese restaurant opened around the corner to my office and as I have no commitment to anyone place I tried it out and began ordering my take away from the new place. A few months later a familiar face greeted me in the new restaurant, the smiling friendly face of the lady who formally shouted out my order with limited softness of face, in the bustling open street kitchen.

She greeted me like a long lost friend and was pleased to see me in the shop that she was now working in. She seemed very much more relaxed, possibly because the restaurant was fairly new and did not have as many customers as the street stall and she could actually have a conversation with me instead of the conveyor belt like system which kept the street kitchen lively and cheap.

Mi Yung and I started talking about her journey to Britain, and I was overwhelmed by her declaration about how she did not care if she woke up and it was raining (in Britain we moan about the weather) she was happy when it rained because she had the freedom to work where she wanted and to stand up to her bosses if she felt that her rights were being impinged. She had loved working in the street kitchen but the quickness of the serving had not allowed her to talk with people and this was what she wanted to do more than ever.

Her journey to freedom was based on the need to interact with people when she wanted and to be truly happy, working in this new restaurant meant that she could grow in a way that most people who are born into less restricted societies take for granted. And although she needed a job she expressed to me the need to work somewhere that she could be free and meet and greet the world.

Now, my inquiry is much more based on the positive aspects of the North Korean society in the area; how to mobilise the positive aspects of people like Mi Yung who see the world with eyes based on growth not just on past abuse or being stuck in trauma. Understanding culture is important for social workers, but we do not always need to learn from negative occurrences of adult violence or child abuse.

We can learn by understanding and interacting more with people who have come through adversity attempting to catch glimpses of how they remain resilient and what aspects of their positive worlds can aid those who are not so able to let go of their past. In terms of child protection the local authority should talk to people like Mi Yung to gain an understanding or what support can be put in place to aid and support North Korean families. With regard to social workers intervening with families of similar backgrounds, this lively discussion seems to have been missing in the past decade of social work transformation.

Pregnant and Parenting Youth in Foster Care Epidemic

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Possibly one of the few things more challenging than being a teenage parent is being a teenage parent in foster care.  While the adverse effects of teen pregnancy have been well studied, researchers and social service providers are only recently coming to terms with the growing epidemic of pregnant and parenting youth in foster care.

According to a 2009 Chapin Hall Study  adolescents in foster care are at a significantly higher risk for pregnancy than the general adolescent population:

  • At ages 17 and 18, one third or 33% of young women in foster care were pregnant or parenting  
  • By age 19, more than half or 51 % of young women currently or formerly in foster care were pregnant or parenting, and nearly half of those young women had more than one child
  • 60% of 21-year-old former foster males report impregnating a female partner as compared to 28 % of the general population

To be clear, foster youth are children who have been removed from their families and are in the legal custody of the state. Another way to think of this is, the government is their parents. If that is the reality, than foster youth are basically “our children” and we are doing a pretty shabby job at being their parents.

What is possibly even more troubling than a 50% pregnancy rate is the experiences of these young parents while in foster care:

  • 1 in 5 pregnant teens in foster care received NO prenatal care
  • 22% of teen foster care mothers were investigated for child maltreatment
    (this is way above the 12% of teenage parent in general)
  • 11% of teen foster care mothers had their children removed from their custody 
  • 44% of foster care mothers graduated from high school; 27% for parenting foster fathers
  • Having a child while in foster care was the largest predictor of homelessness after exiting care

Teen pregnancy and parenting is only one of the indicators of poor foster care outcomes. Very few programs and policies address the needs of pregnant and parenting youth in foster care or work to prevent initial or repeat pregnancy.  Other critical foster care outcomes include a significant  increase in the risk of homelessness, incarceration, poor educational attainment, and poverty for foster youth ages 14-18 . But there is something uniquely disturbing about the fact that the children of foster youth are at-risk for entering foster care while their parents are still in foster care.

Though I am in no way suggesting that the U.S. do away with child protective services or foster care, circumstances such as these do beg the question, “Is the government any better at being a parent than the very caregivers these children are removed from?” This is a scary question to ask, but one that social workers must constantly be appraising.  The answer is not “no” but it is not a resounding “yes” either.

By definition, children in foster care come into care from troubled circumstances, putting them at greater risk for a number of poor outcomes. But we must make a guarantee to these children that the new environments we provide for them will make them better off than the environments we took them from. We must transition child welfare into a place where safety and permanency are not our only goals.  Well-being and a better future are essential.

As a child welfare systems change analyst, I applaud the tireless work of child welfare workers and administrations and recognize it is one of the most difficult, yet rewarding, jobs to do. There are so many forces beyond our control and endless administrative hurdles to overcome. But we must still do better. We have to do better or what is the point of the entire system?

References & Resources: 

Boonstra, H.D. (2011). Teen pregnancy among young women in foster care: A primer. Guttermacher Policy Review, 14 (11) pp.8-19.

Center for the Study of Social Policy: Pregnant and Parenting Youth in Foster Care

Children’s Bureau, Administration of Children, Youth, and Families. The AFCARS Report: Preliminary FY 2012 as of July 2013.

Children’s Defense Fund. (2010). Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act Summary.

Four Tips To Building Self Esteem In Children

Parents want their child to have good self esteem. However, self-esteem doesn’t come naturally to children. It is something that must be fostered, developed, nurtured and grown. Following these four tips can help.

1.  Show them you value them
Let your children know you love them.  This is done through praise and through direct expressions of love, hugs, and kisses. Children need to be told directly by their parents or caregiver that they are loved. Children need to be held, cuddled, and played with. Quality and quantity of time demonstrate valuing. Few things speak more to being valued, then just being there.

2.  Teach them and let them learn
Competency is the next ingredient to healthy self esteem. As the child grows and begins exploring the house (often the kitchen cupboards) the child gains the opportunity to increase competency with access and control of larger objects over greater spaces.  Again the response of the parent is crucial.  Some parents structure the child’s environment for maximum exploration while other parents localize their child’s area of living.  Either way, making way for the child to play and explore safely, whatever the limits, is often referred to as “baby proofing”. The greater the control and mastery of skills a child develops the greater the sense of competency which is the second ingredient to healthy self esteem.

Parents can facilitate competency by providing safe areas for children to develop skills and by allowing their children to participate in household activities such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, making beds, etc.  The goal of these activities is for the child to develop a sense of control and not the perfectionist pursuit of the best made bed, etc. Participation should be fun, supportive or helpful.

3.  Participate in doing good deeds
The third thing parents can do to facilitate healthy self esteem in their children is to direct and participate with their children in the doing of good deeds.  Doing good deeds teaches children to be aware of the life of others beyond themselves.  This enables the development of empathy and altruistic behaviour.  What’s important is that children are encouraged or even positioned to be helpful to the extent of their ability.  The little one may carry a plastic cup to the table, the middle one a plate and a spoon, while the big one can clear.  Special little projects can be undertaken, visits can be made, and pennies can be put in the charity coin boxes at the check-out counter.

4.  Make the rules of life clear
The last thing parents can provide to facilitate self-esteem in their children is structure.  Structure is a word that actually implies two separate concepts: routines and limits.  Routines provide structure over time and limits provide structure over behaviour.

Another way to think of structure is like the rules of a game. How well could you play Monopoly, Hop Scotch, Tag, or Hide and Go Seek, if there weren’t rules?  Rules include who goes next, under which circumstances, and when.  The rules also include what happens when someone goes outside the normal bounds of play – miss a turn, pay a fine, etc.

Knowing the rules of the game of life is sometimes referred to as internalising structure.  This too is also a form of competency – when the child knows the how’s, what’s, when’s, and where’s, of life. Unfortunately this information doesn’t come automatically.  Children may pick some of the rules up incidentally as they go along, but this leaves much to chance.  Parents can help their children internalise structure by commenting on daily routines, specifying appropriate behaviour, providing feedback and by providing consequences for undesirable behaviour.

These four ingredients, valuing, competency, good deeds, and structure form the basic building blocks for the development of self esteem.  And why develop self-esteem in children? Children with a healthy self-esteem feel good about themselves, relate well to others, behave more appropriately and are more aware of the world around them.

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