NUMBER 189 • 21 JANUARY 2003 • RIGHTS OF CHILDREN
INDEX OF QUOTES
My first encounter with the concept of Children’s Rights occurred when I was working as a Residential Social Worker in Leicester nine years ago. A Children’s Rights Service, operating independently of the Social Services Department, had just been established and was one of the first of its kind in England. It employed a Child Rights Officer whose job it was to promote the rights of children.
Our reactions as those working with children were based on suspicion, mistrust and fear. We thought that the Child Rights Service had been established as yet another body to monitor and to invariably criticise our practice with children. We had stereotypical and negative images of children simply using and abusing their new found rights as a way of continuing their general rebellion against the adult world, causing mayhem in their wake.
These feelings had reached such a level that I can actually remember watching a Children’s Rights Officer stalking the grounds of the children’s home I was working in, in order to meet a child. He was not allowed in the building as he was seen as a de-stabilising influence. Of course with hindsight, and after almost ten years of working with the notion of Children’s Rights, such anecdotes seem almost laughable now. However, while extreme, they do help to highlight quite powerfully the very real and understandable sense of fear that can exist among practitioners when such a radical change to existing practice takes place.
In essence, these are fears based upon one key myth: one that sets Children’s Rights in direct opposition to social work practice. It is a case of ‘us’ and ‘them’ - the more that children are given ‘rights’, the more that we, as Social Workers, are undermined. The reality, as I now want to suggest, is very different. It is a reality that sees a healthy balance struck between Children’s Rights and social work practice, and where social work practice is actually significantly enhanced by a clearer focus on the rights of children.
In order to explore the reality of Children’s Rights we should begin by looking at how they have evolved over recent times. This will provide the historical and theoretical context from which we can then proceed to look more specifically at the Children Order.
The Reality: The broader context
Most of the existing research that has been done on Children’s Rights has drawn attention to the fact that the concepts of children and childhood have changed over time. Within this, two particularly significant shifts have taken place in relation to how society views children.
1. From ‘possessions’ to ‘individuals’
The first shift has been from one which has regarded children as mere possessions of their parents to one which increasingly defines them as individuals in their own right to whom others have a number of responsibilities. Correspondingly, the rights of children to be protected from harm, abuse, exploitation and disease have been progressively enshrined in legislation and have resulted in the growth of health, education and social services provision.
b. From ‘passive’ to ‘active’
More recently, this shift has gone a stage further where children have not just been viewed as having rights to a certain standard of living, but also, crucially, have been regarded as active participants in the world around them. In other words there has been a shift from a rather ‘passive’ view of children to a more ‘active’ one. In particular, this shift can be seen in the increasing stress on such things as:
children’s capacity for involvement in decisions about their own lives;
children’s ability to be able to communicate those decisions;
adults’ responsibility to give those views due regard.
This changed view on childhood from submission and passivity to one of active participation in decision-making processes is reflected in current legislation relating to children and underlines debates on the rights of children.
The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, for example, was ratified by the Government in 1991 and contains 54 articles relating to the rights of the child. In this, the Convention defines children’s rights under the headings of:
In relation to participation, for example, the U.N. Convention declares that:
A child who is capable of forming his or her own views has the right to express those views freely. The view of the child shall be given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.
The child shall be provided with the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings either directly or through representation.
Winter, K. (1999). Children's Rights and Social Work Practice. Child Care in Practice. Vol.5. No. 2. pp.102-103.