NUMBER 1149 • 23 MARCH • CHILD ADVOCACY
Advocacy — that of the child’s wishes and feelings, views and interests — has become a growth industry, witnessed by the formation of child advocacy organizations, the development of professional guidelines and by judicial pronouncements. This has led to difficulties for practitioners in relation to developing appropriate professional procedures and techniques, setting role boundaries and determining the limitations of advocacy itself. To understand the nature of these difficulties created for professionals we need to locate the development of child advocacy in a double consensus that emerged during the 1980s among those professionally concerned with children and their families. There were two themes in the consensus: children should be allowed a greater say in what happens to them and parents should, together, retain responsibility for making decisions about their children. These two ideas have been given priority by family lawyers, family court welfare officers, the judiciary, mediators, counsellors, psychologists and social workers, and yet they are self-evidently not always compatible and the focus on parental responsibility may well operate to the detriment of the aim of hearing the child.
This has led to two quite different developments. First, in those circumstances where parents do not, or cannot, make decisions about the upbringing of their children (or where the children themselves wish, and are legally able, to contest the parental decision) those decisions are made in professionally dominated arenas where the child is at a disadvantage. In these circumstances it is accepted that the child must have an adult advocate for his or her views and interests. The questions this raises are then the following: who can advocate most effectively for the child and how does the advocate ascertain what to say on behalf of the child? A focus on those advocacy-centred questions, however, makes invisible other questions: has the advocate responsibility for the psychological health of the child and when and how should counselling be available?
The second development is in regard to what might be termed ‘indirect advocacy’ of the child’s wishes. The focus on parental responsibility has led to professional guidelines and statutory duties which enjoin professionals to encourage and empower parents to listen to the child’s wishes and to incorporate those wishes in family decision-making. Indirect advocacy may well, therefore, shade into mediation processes.
The questions these developments raise are further complicated by the fact that there is no unitary theoretical framework underpinning the development of advocacy initiatives: two quite different strands fed into the pressure for giving the child a voice. On the one hand there emerged rights-based arguments for greater self-determination by children and, on the other, welfare-based concerns that children are damaged by being marginalized from decision making. These different motivations are still present and lead to the fundamental question of whether the advocate should seek out and articulate the child’s views and wishes or the child’s interests and welfare.
Piper, C. (1988). Child Advocacy. In Craig, Y.J. (ed.) Advocacy, Counselling and Mediation in Casework. London: Jessica Kingsley. pp.65-79