The rights of the child

See me, hear me: Including children in practice


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Human rights are inherent claims that belong to all individuals everywhere. They are based on respect for the dignity and equal worth of each and every human being and capture the qualities or pre-conditions of life to which everyone is entitled regardless of their age, their gender, their race, religion or nationality.  Human rights are: 

Universal: They apply to everyone equally without exception

Inalienable: Human rights cannot be taken away or given up

Interdependent & indivisible: Human rights apply to the full range of human experience and there is no hierarchy of rights. No human right should be set above another. 

The United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) is a comprehensive list of the things all children require to lead happy, healthy and fulfilling lives from birth through to adolescence and young adulthood. The Convention covers a wide range of rights including:

  • civil rights and freedoms 
  • family environment and alternative care 
  • basic health and welfare 
  • education, leisure and cultural activities 
  • social protection measures.  

In ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, the Australian Government has a moral and legal obligation to ensure that children’s rights are respected (not violated) and that they take administrative, legal and financial action to ensure children can enjoy (fulfil) their rights. 


What is the value of a child rights lens to our work?

A child rights approach asks us to think differently about the children we work with and for. A human rights perspective acknowledges that children of all ages are legitimate and active rights holders. They have knowledge and insight into their own lives and the outside world and are entitled to be taken seriously. 

Dignity and respect are at the core of all human rights. Dignity is the inherent worth of every person, and making everyone feel that they matter. A child rights lens asks us to think about how we can involve children in a respectful, child-friendly and meaningful way that leaves them feeling empowered. The process of building capacity and supporting children and families to bring about change is as important as the outcome. 

When governments ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child they are required to submit a regular “report card” to the United Nations about what they have done to ensure children can enjoy their rights. Governments can be held to account for their action or inaction related to rights. As practitioners this means children and young people have a right to question our actions. It also means we need to ask important questions that provoke accountability if we feel children’s rights are being violated or ignored. 

Because rights are interdependent, we can join the dots and see how one problem is related to another. For example we can ask ourselves how neglect and parental substance misuse are situated in broader social, community and rights related patterns of poor housing, unemployment, health or gender inequalities or the loss of culture, identity or voice. Understanding such intersectional disadvantage alerts us to new and different actions and partnerships we need to form so we can begin to transform the context and underlying causes of abuse and neglect. 

Balancing the rights of children and adults 

How do we understand a parent’s right to raise their child and a child’s right to autonomy and self-determination? There is a risk if we focus on the individual autonomy of either a parent or a child that we may generate conflict or a winner/ loser mentality. Instead it is important to think about parenting as a process not as possession and that parents have a responsibility to help children realise their rights. The notion of “evolving capacities” included in the Convention on the Rights of the Child infers that as children develop capacities and become more capable of exercising their rights, parents have to fulfil fewer parental responsibilities to support them in realising their rights. For us this means building thoughtful relationships between parents, children and ourselves. A parent may have a different view of what is in a child’s best interest compared to the views of their child or their caseworker. It is our job to help children and families come to a mutual understanding of what a safe and good upbringing might be consistent with their human rights. 

Some of the key differences between our traditional welfare oriented approaches compared to a human rights based approach are detailed in Table 1.

Welfare approach

Child Rights approach

Action is voluntary or optional.

Governments are duty bearers with legal and moral obligations to act. They can be held accountable for their action or inaction. As representatives of government we can be held accountable for our actions related to ensuring peoples’ rights are met and not violated.

We recognise disparities yet work to bring the greatest good to the greatest number.

We focus on inequities. We start from the perspective of who because of the gender, race, religion, culture or age are less able to enjoy their rights. We aim to meet the unique needs of children, young people and families fairly and equitably. 

It is important that we get results.

We think about, monitor and evaluate how we involve each child in a safe and dignified manner that builds their capacity to express their agency.

Children, young people and families are vulnerable. They have limited capacity to contribute.

People are rights holders. They have a right to express their views and define the agenda in a manner that embraces their capacities. Governments must provide mechanisms for and information about the ways children can participate, complain and seek remedies. We believe in self help and that with support many people can and do change.

We address the immediate problems. 

We see children’s safety and wellbeing in a wider context. We consider local knowledge, contextualise experience and see how power or lack of power has contributed to problems now and historically. We aim to transform the social, economic and political norms and institutions that produce inequalities and injustice and contribute to child abuse and neglect. 

We are the technical experts who hold the solutions.

Children and families have capacities, and with support they can understand their rights and their oppression. They can join with others to design solutions and create change. We believe in partnership and possibilities not fatalism.

There is a hierarchy of needs.

We think holistically not in isolation. 

Table 1: child welfare compared to a child rights approach

Key developments in Children’s Rights at a glance

(McDougall, 2016; AIFS, 2015)


THE FOUR GUIDING PRINCIPLES OF THE CONVENTION ON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD AND IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE

The Committee on the Rights of the Child identified four general principles that underpin the implementation of the Convention and that are particularly relevant for our practice; non-discrimination, the best interests of the child, the right to survival and development and the right to participate.

Non-Discrimination: All children, no matter their religion, race, culture, gender, socio-economic status or ability, have rights. At the core of this principle is equal opportunity for all and the recognition that some children and young people have less opportunity to enjoy their rights because of their religion, their age, their gender or race. For us this means thinking about how a child’s gender or ability or culture makes them more vulnerable than other children to the risk and impact of abuse and neglect. We also need to tailor our response to eliminate the causes of discrimination and disadvantage so they have the same opportunity as other children to be protected, nurtured and develop to their full potential. 

The Best Interests of the Child: Any decision or action that may affect children must always prioritise the best interests of the child. 

A child’s best interest does not mean they should be considered in isolation to their parents or family situation. The principle implies that whenever decisions are taken that affect children’s lives the impact of that decision on a child must be assessed. The interests of parents, the community or the State must not be the overriding concern.  

The Convention on the Rights of the Child spells out the key elements to be taken into account when assessing a child’s best interest which include;

  • taking into account a child’s views 
  • appreciating their identity (their ethnic, cultural and linguistic background) and ensuring they have access to culture, country and family of origin
  • wherever possible preserving the family unit. When this is not possible ensuring contact with both parents when it is safe
  • assessing the safety and integrity of the child and possibility of future risk
  • the child’s right to health, including provision of information about treatments  and outcomes and seeking a child’s view and consent
  • the child’s right to education
  • appreciating that the capacities of the child will evolve and the decision makers should consider measures that can be revised or adjusted accordingly instead of definitive and irreversible actions. 

Ensuring the Child’s survival and development: All children have the right to life and to be provided opportunities to reach their full potential. A child’s development includes their physical, mental, spiritual and cultural development. This principle assumes that children have the capacity to develop and need a protective, caring, safe and stimulating environment to do so. 

Participation: The Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates that children should be free to have opinions in all matters affecting them, and those views should be given due weight "in accordance with the age and maturity of the child". The right to be heard begins with the assumption that children are experts in their lives and that they have the capacity to form their own views and the right to express them. Children must provide their views voluntarily and be able to decide how and when to be heard. Children also have the right to complain, be listened to and receive a response when their right to be heard is disregarded or violated.

To ensure children can participate we must provide them with full, accessible diversity-sensitive and age appropriate information about their participation including the purpose, nature and impact of participating. 


PUTTING THE PRINCPLES INTO PRACTICE

Non-discrimination

  • Make discrimination visible.  Listen to and collect information about ways in which a child’s gender, age, cultural identity, sexuality, religion, language, disability or membership means that they are being marginalised, treated differently or unfairly. Speak up about service gaps so others know how many and which children are missing out on having their fundamental rights met.  
  • Consider multiple forms of discrimination - what is it like for a very young girl with a disability or an Indigenous boy living in a remote rural area? Remember that each child’s vulnerabilities and strengths are unique. Listen intently to their experiences. Check yourself for possible bias - am I relying on past situations or decisions when thinking about this child? How can I tailor my response and do things differently for this child? 
  • Think about how discrimination in one area impacts on another. For example do children get bullied or excluded because of their parent’s drug use? Does this restrict their willingness and opportunity to go to school, play sports or join other social clubs?  Spend time with children and get to know and understand them as unique individuals - their daily routines, their needs, dreams, capacities and fears. What other agencies, family or community members do we need to form genuine partnerships with to help children enjoy their rights?
  • Parents may hold certain beliefs about the capacities and position of children within families and households. It is important to understand the relationships between children and their parents – who holds the power? Who gets a say in what decisions and how does this grant access to or deny children their rights to education, play, healthcare, care and protection or family? Help children, young people and parents/carers think holistically and come together to discuss the impact decisions may have on many aspects of a child’s life.
  • It is important to remember that one child’s experience can be very different to their siblings. Although you may be concerned about one child it is important to speak to all children in a family. Think about whose voice in the family may have been missed or whose voice has been privileged. What assumptions are we making about one child based on the circumstance of another? 
  • Children and young people often internalise negative stereotypes. Listen for when children, young people or parents use negative terms about themselves - “I feel like I am nothing, I am not worth it”. Why do they think about and describe themselves like this? Could they have internalised the stigma and discrimination they experience? Think of ways you can help them start that process of valuing themselves, seeing themselves as important and having capacities. For example, encourage parents to spend time with their children, have regular opened ended conversations to show they are interested, praise their achievements and set appropriate boundaries and routines so they can feel safe. 
  • Think of ways to connect children, young people and parents with other individuals or groups so they know their difficulties are shared by others. Connecting children and young people with others creates collective power to challenge discriminatory beliefs, attitudes and actions.
  • Think about your privilege and power and how that influences the way you view and respond to children, young people and families. How does being educated, being white or being heterosexual give you benefits that the children and families we work with do not have? How does your experience and belonging to particular groups shape our understanding of the world and how we see others? 
  • Children and families look to us as a source of help and often disclose personal information and open their lives to the scrutiny of the organisation. Your position can signal that you are the “expert”, who has the power to remove the child. Using a person’s  first name, providing them with information about what is happening, letting them see what is written about them, using simple language and genuinely involving them in decision making can help them feel more equal and empowered in the decisions that are made affecting them and their family. 
  • Think about possible bias. Do you hold certain stereotypes or assumptions about a child, family or groups before you meet them? Do you think, speak or write about parents or children as vulnerable, disadvantaged, difficult, hopeless, incapable or broken? Do you write about them as “safe/unsafe” “fit/unfit”? Do you unconsciously judge their parenting or family arrangements from a Western, middle class, Anglo or white perspective? Have you thought about or described children as uncommunicative and uncooperative without taking the time to see how past trauma may be impacting their behaviour?  Critical reflection with your supervisor or colleagues can help you think about how your values, attitudes, beliefs and privilege influence your work. Think about respectful ways you could discuss and challenge oppressive practices in group supervision or within other activities.
  • Discrimination can be indirect. Are there some policies or procedures in the workplace (dress, working hours, language, office and location) that may have an unfair effect on adults and children of different genders or people from different racial backgrounds? Do you talk to children, young people and parents about the best time and/or place to meet? Do you think about ways to better communicate with families who don’t speak English or provide better access for children with physical or mental disability?  Think about changing the way, time or how or where you meet with children, young people and parents so they feel comfortable and respected.

The best interests of a child

  • Challenge social norms that perceive children as being vulnerable and having limited capacities. Children are the experts in their own lives. From a very early age children are equipped to understand, interpret and communicate their experiences. Accept their competence. Talk to them about their lives. Listen to their fears but also their dreams. Help them to share these with others, and support others to take children and young people seriously. 
  • Think about and record the process and outcome for deciding what is in a child’s best interest. How were best interests decided? Were the child's views sought and taken into account? Were the parents' views taken into account? What did decisions look like from a family perspective? What does it look like from a cultural perspective? Make sure a wide range of opinions are sought and listened to, including carers, community members, professionals and importantly children, young people and parents. 
  • It is good to critically reflect on your role and influence in the decision making process. Think about your conversations with children, young people and parents -  were they guarded and unresponsive at anytime? What does this suggest? 
  • Was everyone clear about the final decision? Take time to explain the decision if it differed from the parent’s or children’s wishes. Check if children, young people and parents really understand and are able to describe the rationale for the decision in their own words? 
  • When thinking about a child’s best interests it is important to relate decisions about children and young people to a well informed assessment of their developmental needs and evolving capacities. Have we consulted other relevant agencies and services when making decisions or did we rely on one agency? Did we rely on easily accessible information rather than harder to reach information and data to inform our decision? 

The right to survival and development

  • Consider the long term implications of a child’s isolation from lifelong connections and how connections forged now can ultimately lead to better health and social outcomes for them in later life. How much time and effort were you able to dedicate to finding family members or community supports? Did you operate with a sense of urgency or use Family Finding tools such as mobility mapping to locate family members? It is important to discuss with your manager the importance of finding enduring relationships for children. 
  • Think holistically. How does a child’s experience of abuse and neglect affect their education, health, ability to express their views, form friendships or opportunities to play? Consult other agencies to see and understand the full, ongoing and cumulative impact abuse and neglect has on a child. What partnerships need to be formed to help children realise their rights? 
  • Learn about how children grow and change as they mature and become more independent. What do they need at each stage of growth? How do we address the immediate needs in ways that facilitate (not compromise) their later development? How can you help parents understand the developmental needs of their children and when and how these may be compromised?
  • Children are the experts in their own lives. Talk to them about their lives. How can you help them share their views with others around them and get others to take them seriously? Challenge social norms that view children as having limited capacities or incapable as these shape perceptions of childhood that have a direct impact on their lives.

Putting participation into practice

The United Nations (2009) developed best practice principles in working  with children which can help us think about how we translate the right to be heard into our practice (see Table 2).  

Table 2: United Nations best Practice Principle for working with Children.

Practice principles

Translating it into our practice

Transparent and transformative

Children must be provided with information about their right to participate in child friendly ways that are appropriate for their age, gender, culture and ability. We must explain to them how their opinions will be considered and provide feedback about the outcomes after they shared their views. We must let children know who they can talk to, and how to contact these people if they are impacted by or unhappy with the process used to collect their views.

Voluntary

Children should never be coerced into expressing their views. Seek permission from children themselves and from their parents so adults know what is going to be expected and can support children as necessary. Children must also know they can stop sharing information with us at anytime and can opt out or withdraw after agreeing to participate.

Respectful

Understand a child’s world from their perspective and without a fixed agenda. How do they interpret what is happening to them? We must make time to listen to children and young people and create opportunities for them to express their views using different methods sensitive to their age, culture, gender or race. Their views should be recorded fully, and accurately represented within the decision making framework.  

Relevant

Children should have a say about the issues important to them. We should listen and be directed by their views rather than just consulting with them about things we would like to know. 

Child friendly

We should create and use safe and inviting methods for children to participate based on a child’s capacity to engage. 

Inclusive

We need to make sure children of different abilities, language, culture, race, age, gender and religions can express their views. We need to think about the best time, space and means to include children’s voices. We need to ask ourselves – who may not be able to participate and why? - and then adapt our processes accordingly. 

Safe and sensitive to risk

Children and young people should never be harmed because of expressing their views. Expression of emotion should be expected, planned for, acknowledged and managed, and we need to provide supports for children’s participation in an ongoing manner.

Accountable 

We need to prioritise and provide feedback to children about how their views have been taken into consideration.


Charter of Rights for children and young people in Out of Home Care 

Children and young people in out-of-home care have the right to participate in decisions about what’s happening in their life. Family and Community Services (FACS) has developed a suite of resources for the Charter of Rights specifically for children and young people in out-of-home care. The resources can help you start conversations with children and their carers about their rights, like the right to have contact with family and community, to be respected, to feel safe and to ask for information and complain if necessary. The charter can be accessed at:

http://www.community.nsw.gov.au/parents,-carers-and-families/for-young-people/are-you-in-care/charter-of-rights

VIDEOS

To watch some short videos from the Research to Practice Seminar: “See me, Hear Me: Including Children in Practice” held July 2016, see links below:

A Brief History of Children’s Rights and the Principles of the CRC

James McDougall, The Australian Child Right’s Taskforce

Challenges and Opportunities for Children’s Rights within Care and Protection Settings

James McDougall, The Australian Child Right’s Taskforce

Needs vs Rights

Andrew Johnson, The NSW Advocate for Children and Young People

FURTHER READING:

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

CRC25 Australian Child Rights Progress Report (2016)

Face the Facts: Children’s Rights Report (2014)

RESOURCES: 

Simplified Version of the UNCRC

Child Friendly Version of the UNCRC

Charter of Rights Booklet (7-12 year olds)

Charter of Rights Booklet (13-18 years olds)

REFERENCES

Australian Child Rights Taskforce (2016). CRC25 Australian Child Rights Progress Report. Retrieved from http://www.childrights.org.au/crc25/ 

Australian Council of Social Service (2014), Poverty in Australia 2014, ACOSS, Strawberry Hills, retrieved from:

http://www.acoss.org.au/images/uploads/ACOSS_Poverty_in_Australia_2014.pdf 

Australian Human Rights Commission (2014). Face the Facts: Children’s Rights. Retrieved from:

https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/FTFChildren.pdf 

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2013). Specialist homelessness services: 2012-2013. Retrieved from:

http://www.aihw.gov.au/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=60129545638

Bessell, S (2011). Promoting children’s protection and participation. Centre for children and young people: Background briefing series, no. 6. Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW, Australia.

Australian Institute of Family Studies (2015), History of Child Protection Services: CFCA resource sheet. Retrieved from:

https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/history-child-protection-services 

Lawrence D, Johnson S, Hafekost J, Boterhoven De Haan K, Sawyer M, Ainley J, Zubrick SR (2015). The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents. Report on the second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Department of Health, Canberra. Retrieved from: http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/mental-pubs-m-child2 

McDougall, J (2016). Child rights in care and protection: Opportunities and challenges. Presentation, See Me, Hear Me: Including Children in Practice, Research to Practice Seminar, Sydney, 21 July 2016. 

McDowell, J (2013). Experiencing Out-of-Home Care in Australia: The views of children and young people. CREATE report card. Sydney. CREATE Foundation.

Flateau, P, Thielking , M, MacKenzie , D & Steen, A (2015), The cost of youth homelessness in Australia study snapshot, Report 1. Retrieved from:

http://www.salvationarmy.org.au/Global/Who%20we%20are/publications/2015/Youth%20Homelessness%20Report/The%20Cost%20of%20Youth%20Homelessness.pdf 

Sawyer, M.G., Carbone, J.A., Searle, A.K. & Robinson, P.J. (2007). The Mental Health and Wellbeing of Children and Adolescents in Home-Based Foster Care. Medical Journal of Australia, 186 (4). 181-184.

UNICEF, 2014. Protecting Children’s Rights. Retrieved from:

http://www.unicef.org/crc/index_protecting.html 

United Nations (n.d). Convention on the Rights of the Child. Retrieved from: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CRC.aspx