Passionate about participation in Doncaster
Listening to the voice of the child is not just a tick box exercise for the Child Protection Conference team at Doncaster Children’s Services Trust - who have notched up their highest percentage ever for the number of children and young people attending their own child protection conference.
The Trust owns the laudable statistic of having 70 per cent of all children and young people choosing to take part in their conference – not only is this the highest rate yet but is also a 20 per cent hike on their own success last year.
And we are not just talking about a handful of conferences – the team of seven conference chairs (some part-time) hosted 915 last year, involving hundreds of children; and 99.6 per cent of which were held within the statutory timescale.
Service Manager Laura Gough says it’s all thanks to the commitment and determination of the team over past years; great conference chairs and great partnership working. Plus, the team have the attitude that it’s just not an option to leave out the child’s voice at children’s conferences.
One of the conference chairs, Kelly Wood explains: “On the form that social workers use with families, it is basically a given that children and young people will be asked to attend the conference and they will have to consciously opt out rather than opt in on that.”
It hasn’t always been thus and, behind the impressive statistic, there has been a lot of hard work, creativity and sheer passion towards helping children and young people.
“In the past, the conference has been seen as an adults’ meeting,” said Laura.
“However, there has been a cultural shift here at The Trust and amongst our partners to promote the child’s voice.”
Part of this has involved the creation of a conference service Participation document which includes a pledge to help children and young people to get involved; as well as having a participation champion who has driven the agenda and held conference chairs and others involved in the process to account.
The Children’s Speak Out Loud participation group, which runs half-termly meet-ups for Children in Need and those on Child Protection plans, have even produced an animation to help explain to children and young people what happens at a conference, which can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tsqd9iOaNnI
The team have developed strategies to make sure that children and young people feel comfortable being involved in the conference. Kelly says: “We will go out and do home visits and invite the young people in to see the conference facilities. We will discuss with the young people how they want to share their views.
“When they attend the conference, a member of the business support team meets and greets them and makes them comfortable in a waiting room, where there are age-appropriate refreshments for them.
“We can also hold the conference somewhere else, if it suits the young person better. For instance, some children and young people don’t want to miss school - or feel safe there - and we can hold a conference there, after school hours, thanks to having a great relationship with our education colleagues.”
In addition, the children and young people can have an advocate who they can instruct to speak for them, or they can express their views to the Chair prior to the meeting if they do not want to participate in the actual process.
Kelly says she and the other chairs have to be mindful of how the young people want to share their views – and be aware that it may not always be appropriate for a child to stay for the whole of the conference as things may be discussed that they are not fully aware of, such as drug use by a parent.
“We are basically passionate about participation,” says Laura. “The conferences are all about that child or young person’s future. How mad would it be not to include them?”
And the team have nothing but praise for those young people for playing a vital part in their own future, even if it means talking about uncomfortable home-truths relating to their parents.
“We have had some excellent young people, who have been brave beyond words,” says Kelly, adding: “We had one girl last week who was fantastic. She really wanted to tell us what life was like for her. In the past she would not have had a chance to speak up and have her feelings and views heard.”
Having a great working relationship with partner agencies cannot, say Laura and Kelly, be underestimated. “We are very fortunate in Doncaster to have such close understanding with education, health, South Yorkshire Police and the Probation Service, without which we could not be so successful at getting the child’s voice heard.
It’s not just the Trust team themselves who have been impressed by the number of children and young people taking part in their conferences – other local authorities have been in contact to come and visit to see for themselves how the Trust has achieved it.
“We are really happy to help others on their journey,” says Laura. “But we’re not resting on our laurels. We want to get even better.”
“She is a really good social worker. She listens to me; she fights for my rights; she has a laugh with me and is honest with me. She is the best social worker ever.”
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