‘The voice of the child’ has thankfully become embedded as a vital concept in our family courts. After all, children are the subject of each case so it would be surprising if their voice was anything but central. However, the fact that we need to reinforce this concept with conferences, papers and pilot projects, shows that special efforts need to be made in every case to make sure the child’s voice is heard loud and clear.
The importance of getting it right is reinforced with virtually every tragedy reported. Becky Watts, the 16 year old in Bristol murdered by her step-brother, told a child psychologist she was afraid of him. The mother of 14 year old Breck Bednar told police she was worried her son was being groomed by a man he had met through a video gaming website. The man killed Breck. Children and their safe carers do often tell those in authority of their fears and concerns. You often only get one chance to listen properly and act upon what you hear. If you don’t act,a child loses hope of being heard. It is a grave and ever-present professional responsibility, and it is why we have to make sure that our safeguarding culture and awareness remains at the top of the Cafcass mind-set and of other agencies protecting children.
Children’s voices can be heard in a number of ways. Some children prefer their story to be told by others, as long as it is true. Others want to express it directly. Yet more have alternative stories and narratives to tell – depending on their audience. It may be a story true and false in equal measure or a wholly invented story for one reason or another. Adults of course are the same, which makes the assessment of risk and reality hard.
To increase the success of risk assessments, there is no substitute for spending time with children to understand them – despite the many constraints on the time we have.
That and piecing together the child’s life and story through information and intelligence from those who know them well and can see them objectively. This is especially important as children can be defined in terms of a manifest set of problems, yet those problems may disappear when the child is in another setting or another group of people.
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