THE BLOG

Why We Must Always Listen To The Child

02/10/2017 11:08 BST | Updated 02/10/2017 11:08 BST
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Cute little girl holding balloons and running through field

A few weeks ago, among the furore raised by The Times' story about the five-year-old girl placed in foster care with Muslim carers while she waited for her grandmother to be assessed as a potential carer, we heard from lots of people who had an opinion on the situation. Foster carers, politicians, charity chief executives - fostering rarely receives so much attention from such a wide audience all at the same time.

But the one opinion that seemed to be missing was the child's.

Who was finding out how happy the child was, whether she had views on where she should be living, what she wanted from her carers? And who was ensuring that her views had been taken into consideration?

Yes, we heard from one source that she was distressed about returning to her carers, but we also heard from another that the child's guardian found her settled and well cared for. In all the discussion around the impact this story would have on foster carers and the importance (or not) of meeting the child's religious and cultural needs - everyone seemed to assume that they knew what was best for the child, without appearing to have listened to what she wanted.

Of course we, the public, will never know what the child's views really are - and nor should we. But our concern amid the fuss should have been how the child was being listened to, and her happiness and security in where she was living and the plans for her future.

In June, the Jersey Care Inquiry devoted their second of eight recommendations to 'giving children a voice'. The Jersey Care Inquiry was set up to look at what went wrong in its care system that led to the abuse of many children on the Island. The report not only identified failings, but made recommendations for improving Jersey's care system going forward.

Become gave written evidence to the inquiry and met with the Panel during their phase three visits, to talk about the importance of listening to children in care, so we were delighted to see the recommendations around ensuring there is a new, child-friendly complaints system, a Child Right's Officer is appointed, and an independent advocacy organisation used to support children in care to raise concerns. We also welcome the suggestion that the Chief Minister should make it a personal commitment to meet annually with care-experienced young people.

Because fundamentally, this is what matters. And so, the recommendation of the Jersey Care Inquiry to give children a voice must be taken as seriously as any of the others - but it's also a timely reminder that we must continue to listen to children in care in England and put their views at the very heart of the care system. It will require as much work, if not more, to ensure that children are listened to.

Listening takes work. The result - having a child trust you enough to talk - is not something that happens overnight and for a child to trust an adult enough to be honest will take time and patience, and strong, stable relationships. It's also not the passive act we can think it is - it requires time, empathy and action. And at times it needs bravery, and trust, on the part of everyone involved.

Listening is important to children in care and care leavers - not only to make sure that they are being cared for properly and that they are happy, but also to make sure that the services that we are providing work for children in care. Listening also keeps children safe, because if they feel that they are going to be believed then they are more likely to be honest when they are in danger.

It's important to remember that children and young people live in a world that is completely different to the one we inhabited as children, and also one that is different to the one we adults currently live in. Children's priorities are very different to adults' too - children live in the present, while as adults we think much more about outcomes and end-goals. And that means that adults can never fully access that world in which children live. That makes it even more important that we listen to children - so we really understand what it's like for them, right here, right now.

Children not only live in a different world, but they define listening differently too - which is why it was so good to see that the Jersey Care Inquiry's recommendation includes the sentence: 'This does not mean that every complaint is upheld, but that every complaint is given full and serious consideration and a proper and timeous response is made to the young person.'

Children want to see tangible evidence that they have been heard. They want to see practical action happen as a result of being listened too, while often adults think it is enough that they have listened. If a child doesn't think they have been listened to because no action has been taken, this could well erode the trust that is so important in relationships, and is so fundamental to children in care when they are growing up.

Properly listening to children - giving them the chance to have their views heard, considered and acted upon - is a powerful thing, and gives a feeling of control to children. In a care system where they may not feel that they have much control at all - this makes it very powerful indeed.