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Time to listen: Independent advocacy within the child protection process

Recent high profile cases have once again put child protection services under close scrutiny. The exposure of systematic safeguarding failures in Oxford, Rochdale and Edlington have raised questions about the extent to which services are putting children’s experiences and voices at the heart of the child protection process. In Rochdale, a high-profile case uncovering a child sexual exploitation ring revealed that, despite victims disclosing acts of child sexual exploitation to professionals, ‘overall child welfare organisations missed opportunities to provide a comprehensive, co-ordinated and timely response.’ Victims expressed frustration with the response from social services and the police, describing them as ‘not listening to them.’

The recent publication of Lord Carlile’s inquiry ‘The Edlington Case’ also highlights a range of failings in the child protection system following a serious assault on two young victims in Edlington in 2009. The perpetrators were brothers aged 10 and 11, who were subject to a child protection plan for physical abuse and neglect and were looked after by the local authority, yet many opportunities were missed to effectively meet their needs.

Responding to concerns raised by both the Rochdale and Edlington cases the Secretary of State for Education publicly commented on ‘the failure of our current child protection system.’ He strongly emphasised the need to focus child protection procedures on the interests and needs of children rather than those of adults.

Professionals and expert government advisors have often stressed the need for the voice of the child to be heard in the child protection process in order to improve safeguarding practices and outcomes for children. The 2012 Munro Review of Child Protection states: ‘Children and young people are a key source of information about their lives and the impact any problems are having on them in the specific culture and values of their family. It is therefore puzzling that the evidence shows that children are not being adequately included in child protection work.’

Child protection conferences are a key part of the child protection process, where various professionals, the child or young person and parents/carers offer their assessment of the situation and where appropriate, work together to agree a plan to protect the child. Advocacy within child protection conferences, whereby children are supported by skilled independent practitioners to express their views and talk about their experiences, can bring vital clarity and understanding of the child’s perspective. What’s more, the meaningful engagement of children in the decision making process can lead to improved outcomes ensuring that children are kept safe. However, there is currently no specific right to an independent advocate for child protection conferences.

This report sets out clear evidence to show that strengthening access to advocacy can significantly improve the experience and safeguarding of children within the child protection system. It also shows that the lack of a clear legislative driver for advocacy in child protection means that the child’s voice is often not heard and effectively represented, potentially leaving them at risk. The report makes a clear case for swift Government action to address the legal gap by introducing a statutory presumption that children are supported by an independent advocate in initial and review child protection conferences, unless they choose otherwise. Lessons for practice are also set out, as well as further recommendations for both central and local government.